Underlying the wave of unrest across North Africa and the Middle East is the fact that some of the cries for democracy are coming from mouths in need of food. Media outlets around the world were quick to make the link between food and the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, pointing to one specific grain: wheat.
Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world, with Algeria not far behind. Together, they import more of the grain than all of South America. Even Pharaoh Ramses III's tomb was found with engravings depicting his royal bakery.
Recent fluctuations in wheat supply, some of which appear to be climate-driven, registered most sharply in the Middle East. In just the past year, natural disasters in Russia, Argentina and Australia choked global supply, pushing some governments to halt exports (Climatewire, Jan. 13). Earlier this month, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a rare warning that droughts in China would seriously imperil wheat supplies, although recent rains may have lessened the damage.
Wheat production is predicted to rise by 3.4 percent this year, according to FAO, as strong prices encouraged farmers to plant more of the crop. Nevertheless, the increases are patchy, with heavily wheat-dependent countries like Tunisia suffering yield losses. High international prices mean poor countries will still be emptying their pockets for wheat, even if they are producing more and importing less.
"Wheat tends to trigger a lot of events in the Middle East," said Shenggen Fan, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Globally, no other grain has a connection to livelihood like wheat. With a consumption rate of 661 million tons per year, it easily bypasses rice and maize as the most important food crop in the world. It provides one-fifth of the world's calories, on par with rice, and has the power to instill anxiety in political leaders, market experts, farmers and -- as seen in Cairo's Tahrir Square -- working people.
And it's just a preview of what's likely to come, according to food security experts.
Population and temperatures rise, but wheat barely moves
Running in a race with a climate change, population growth is projected to rise up to 9 billion by 2050. In that same period, temperatures are predicted to rise 2 to 4 degrees Celsius and radically affect growing patterns. Last month, U.S. Wheat Associates, a trade association for the industry, recommended that the global wheat trade double to 250 million metric tons annually by 2050.
"Global wheat production is increasing at only 0.9 percent each year," said Hans-Joachim Braun, director of the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Center's (CIMMYT) Global Wheat Program, in a statement last year. "This is a very critical issue as global demand is growing at 1.5 percent or more annually. Combined with the impacts of climate change, we must avoid the risk of another food crisis and ensure farmers across the world are equipped to meet the demands of a rising world population."
While an increase in atmospheric CO2 could stimulate growth for a carbon-loving plant like wheat, the benefits only accrue if water availability and temperature remain the same -- which they won't, according to climate models.
Wheat is also a difficult grain to perfect. Scientists struggle to figure out how to make it grow more vigorously, survive drier climates and fight off invasive pests and diseases, but the end product must also maintain a high level of quality for what the market wants, such as fluffy rolls or long-lasting dry pasta. An increasingly unreliable climate simply adds to their headache.
One more exacerbating flaw is the crop's low level of genetic diversity. It limits the options of varieties that are more resistant to droughts, heat, molds and other threats posed by climate change.
Not a 'sexy' investment
Its almost-exclusive role as food for humans makes it a less attractive investment.
"Wheat isn't sexy," said Mike Miller, a Washington state wheat farmer and commissioner for the Washington Grain Commission. "Corn is sexy because it has many more values," like feedstock and biofuels.
For decades, wheat was regarded as a weed among the blossoming priorities of private agribusiness, compared to moneymakers like corn and soybeans. About 78 percent of wheat varieties were developed by universities through public grants, said Jorge Dubcovsky, an agronomist at the University of California, Davis. It was simply not lucrative enough for the private sector.
Seed companies make the most money off hybrid varieties, a sort of mule of the plant world. Like the mule, a hardworking donkey-horse combination, a hybrid seed displays the best combination of its parents' genetic qualities. Its drawback is that it is sterile and cannot reproduce.
Unlike corn and soybeans, most wheat varieties are not hybrids. This means that farmers don't need to buy new seed every year, a lost market for seed companies. The drive for wheat research was motivated by food security efforts, said Dubcovsky, not necessarily by higher profit margins.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allotted about $60 million to wheat research. "[It] might sound large, but it pales in comparison to what the private industry is putting into corn and soybeans, almost on a daily basis," said Jane DeMarchi, director of government affairs for research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers.
The relative lack of interest from private companies left wheat farmers wanting attention. Two and a half years ago, the wheat industry mobilized and began approaching technology providers. "In 2008, growers were very active in soliciting investment from private companies," said DeMarchi. "The dynamics of investment are changing."
Monsanto, the world's biggest seed company, flirted with wheat genetics in the late 1990s, looking to add to its line of Roundup Ready crops. The company abandoned its efforts in 2004, due to a dismal outlook for profits.
A few years later, a turnaround occurred. Wheat markets were on the upswing, and growers began pushing heavily for more private investment in research. In 2009, Monsanto bought WestBred, a small grain biotechnology research firm out of Bozeman, Mont. With the merger, Monsanto acquired WestBred's germplasm -- a collection of genetic resources -- and gave itself five to seven years to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant and high-yielding wheat.
More public-private partnerships
Recently, private companies have carved out a role in the campaign for global sustainability. At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a public-private strategy headed by 17 major corporations was launched to boost crop yields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut poverty by 20 percent each in the next decade (Climatewire, Jan. 31).
Last year saw a growth of partnerships between private companies, federal agencies, land-grant universities and organizations. Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta formed a partnership with wheat research institution CIMMYT, seeking to develop both cutting-edge technology and traditional methods accessible to poor farmers in developing countries.
Monsanto announced plans to collaborate with Kansas State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on wheat research. NAWG adopted an official policy to prioritize collaboration between organizations, universities and private companies.
"There's no question that the private sector has an increasingly important role in investing in agriculture, simply because governments and other public institutions can no longer afford to," said Brian Halweil, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, an organization promoting sustainability in international agriculture. "The big question is whether private entities will have the public interest as part of its mission."
While developing new seed varieties is a lucrative proposition for companies, there has been little investment in rebuilding soils, maintaining aquifers or low-cost irrigation, said Halweil.
Profits first, then global good
Halweil suggests that the public sector encourage companies with tax incentives or stockholder pressure to account for their green promises. "There is clearly potential for private-public partnerships that include private firms sharing expertise, genetic material, staff and more in the pursuit of public goods," said Halweil. But "this is the exception rather than the norm right now."
But even those who champion traditional breeding say that partnerships through the industrial agricultural system are the best way to reach the most people, and that private research priorities can go hand in hand with public needs.
Nina Fedoroff, a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University and biotechnology expert, said that private companies possess the capital to develop high-yielding varieties, crucial to ensuring a secure food supply.
"There, we need to focus on regulatory reform," she said, in response to concerns about private interests' focus on profits, not necessarily on the global good.
"Most of the world's food is produced through that system," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization that seeks to promote and ensure plant biodiversity. "We have to be a little bit nuanced."