Whilst the eyes of the World, quite rightly, are on the humanitarian aspects of the Ukraine war, there is a bigger picture unfolding which has long term repercussions. Ukraine is ranked as the fifth largest wheat exporter globally – the Ukrainian flag is famously meant to represent the country’s golden fields of wheat under a clear blue sky.
Bill Angus has a long history in breeding new wheat varieties for the UK and is a board member of CIMMYT – the largest publicly funded wheat breeder on the planet.
He comments: “Wheat is becoming the ‘new oil’ as consumers see the results of shortages building up globally. Wheat prices have doubled in the last two years, which has significant repercussions in the developed world, but more so in the developing world.
“Wheat is used throughout the world from the everyday loaf of bread through to breakfast cereals as well as being a significant constituent of animal feed and even pet food. If you eat pizza, biscuits, noodles or spaghetti you will be eating wheat.
“The world population has woken up to the environmental mistakes made by us all over the last century. However, the over-reaction of reducing arable land production – including wheat – now when we need it most is counter-intuitive.
“The UK has the best environment for growing wheat, the best growers and the best wheat genetics – so we need to take a deep look at an agenda which revolves around ‘sustainable intensification’.
“Yes, there will be opportunities for lower input and organic production, but we should not take our eye off the fundamental and inescapable need to feed our population and mitigate global shortages.
“From a global perspective, part of the solution lies in increasing wheat productivity and profitability in food-insecure regions where wheat has traditionally been grown. Also, in supporting the expansion of wheat production into climatically suitable areas in countries which have traditionally relied on imports to meet local demand.
“Politicians and policy makers need to understand that the consequences of wheat shortages are more significant than oil shortages. Oil use can often be optional – food is not. The countries which will suffer most are those already impoverished by wars and severe climatic changes. Poor food supplies will ‘feed’ terrorism, wars and mass migration. All of these are well known consequences.”
Bill Angus refers to Bram Govaerts, Director General of CIMMYT, in adding that global shocks can be anticipated and mitigated. If agricultural research and development were not chronically underinvested, the world would be much better positioned to prevent and respond to agricultural problems that cause food shocks while tackling the climate challenge.
The UK has always been a staunch supporter of wheat breeding research – both domestically and internationally through CIMMYT (The International Centre for Wheat and Maize Improvement) based in Mexico) and this needs to be sustained and expanded.