Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wheat Is No Longer King

Inspired by the Washington Post series on The Global Food Crisis...
Now, more than ever, we need to focus on what has been going wrong in farm country. From bad farm legislation to indifferent politicians to ignoring the expansion of big agribusiness conglomerates, what we should be doing this spring is adjusting our policies. Instead, we're focused on Reverend Wright, St. John McCain, and Grand Theft Auto IV.
...with 100-pound bags of North Dakota flour now above $50 -- more than double what they were a few months ago -- he [Stephen Fleischman] sees no alternative to a hefty increase in the price of his signature product, a bagel made by hand in the back of the store.

"I've never seen anything like this in 20 years," he said. "It's a nightmare."

Fleishman and his customers are hardly alone. Across America, turmoil in the world wheat markets has sent prices of bread, pasta, noodles, pizza, pastry and bagels skittering upward, bringing protests from consumers.

But underlying this food inflation are changes that are transforming U.S. agriculture and making a return to the long era of cheap wheat products doubtful at best.

Half a continent away, in the North Dakota country that grows the high-quality wheats used in Fleishman's bagels, many farmers are cutting back on growing wheat in favor of more profitable, less disease-prone corn and soybeans for ethanol refineries and Asian consumers.

"Wheat was king once," said David Braaten, whose Norwegian immigrant grandparents built their Kindred, N.D., farm around wheat a century ago. "Now I just don't want to grow it. It's not a consistent crop."

It is precisely because of the fact that we don't engage on these issues anymore that farm policy means virtually nothing in America. It's been scrubbed from our consciousness. It's been eliminated from the culture. Did you happen to notice--the Ashton Kutcher-inspired trend of wearing a mesh farmer cap never really took off. If you live on the East Coast, as I do, you see nothing farm related and almost no relevant news on major websites. Don't go looking for it in the paper--you won't find much there.

In fact, the series I'm quoting from is one of the few times you will see these issues talked about with any substance. Even then, without agriculture beats and without prominent news divisions based in the Midwest these days, you're only getting a small sketch of the issues.

In the 1980s, more than half the farm's acres were wheat. This year only one in 10 will be, and 40 percent will go to soybeans. Braaten and other farmers are considering investing in a $180 million plant to turn the beans into animal feed and cooking oil, both now in strong demand in China. And to stress his hopes for ethanol, his business card shows a sketch of a fuel pump.

Across the Red River and farther north, in Euclid, Minn., Don Strickler, 63, describes wheat as "a necessary evil." Most years, he explained, farmers lose money on it. Still, it provides conservation benefits and can block diseases in soybeans and sugar beets when rotated with those crops.

Wheat's fall from favor, little noticed when it was cheap, has been long coming. Though still an iconic symbol of American abundance -- engraved on currency and praised in song -- the nation's amber waves of wheat have been increasingly shoved aside by other crops. The "breadbasket of the world," which had alleviated hunger and famine since World War I, now generally supplies only a quarter of world wheat exports.

U.S. farmers are expected to plant about 64 million acres of wheat this year, down from a high of 88 million in 1981. In Kansas, wheat acreage has declined by a third since the mid-1980s, and nationwide, there is now less wheat in grain bins than at any time since World War II -- only about enough to supply the world for four days. This occurs as developing countries with some of the poorest populations are rapidly increasing their wheat imports.

Sadly, this same type of story appears often, and this one from almost two years ago could have been written today:

Once the driving force behind transforming the United States into the “breadbasket of the world,” wheat is being steadily replaced by corn as the crop of choice for American farmers.

Genetic modifications to corn seeds, the growing demand for corn-based ethanol as a fuel blend and more favorable farm subsidies are leading farmers to plant corn in places where wheat long dominated. In Kansas, known for a century as the Wheat State, corn production quietly pulled ahead of wheat in 2000, with Kansas producing 23 percent more corn than wheat last year.

This year’s drought-ravaged crop is expected to be the second-smallest harvest for American farmers since 1978. It follows a year in which American farmers planted the fewest acres of wheat since 1972. And while corn acreage nationwide passed wheat about a decade ago, its footprint and that of soybeans are spreading across a greater swath of the Midwest, farther north and west into the Dakotas and central Minnesota — traditional wheat country, where growing corn and soybeans was once almost unthinkable.

“It is getting harder and harder for American farmers to say they feed the world,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research group based in Washington. “Instead, they feed S.U.V.’s.”

The decline of wheat and the broad relandscaping of America’s farmland have come about for several reasons. Better seed technology has given corn and soybeans a widening edge over wheat, and more favorable subsidies have encouraged farmers to abandon wheat. Changing consumer tastes and food packaging advancements have slowed American wheat demand.

It's not like we haven't been warned. It's time for policymakers to engage on these issues and stop rewarding big agribusiness conglomerates for their bad behavior. It's time to hold hearings and try to add some incentives to stick with wheat growing. As the latest farm bill goes into effect, it's time to take the steps necessary to grow more wheat and stabilize our supply.

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