Wheat gets an image makeover

Wheat has become a supporting actor on the Prairies, playing second fiddle to the star of the show, canola.

The crop’s status dimmed because demand growth for the staple has faded.

Global oilseed demand soars because vegetable oil goes into almost all processed food and meal feeds the globe’s fast growing livestock herds, while corn rides the biofuel wave.

However, wheat struggles along, limited mostly to bread, bakery and pasta demand tied to population growth.

Researchers think the best hope for expanded wheat consumption isn’t in the factory or gas tank, but right where it has always been — on the dinner plate. What’s needed is a rebranding, or re-emphasis, on the grain’s healthful qualities, and perhaps plant breeding to make it a super food.

The stakes in finding new demand are high.

Without it, consumption growth can be easily met by rising production in the Black Sea region.

In the last five years, global soybean demand has risen at a compound annual growth rate of 4.68 percent, corn is up 3.15 percent and wheat straggles along at 1.35 percent.

However, in the same period, world wheat production’s compound annual growth has been 2.71 percent.

The imbalance of production and use caused a glut, with global stockpiles now at record levels.

Low prices might reduce wheat acres this year and possibly next, but that’s likely not enough to rebalance supply and demand.

Production in the Black Sea region of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan has exploded in the last decade. Russian wheat exports topped the United States in 2015-16, and it will likely be the world’s largest wheat exporter this crop year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a recent forecast.

“Russia will be among the top exporters for a long time, especially given the potential advances in productivity there,” Tom Basnett, an Australian commodity consultant, told Bloomberg last fall.

Ukrainian production may also climb. The government wants to double the country’s grain harvest by 2020.

Andrew Sowell, USDA global wheat analyst, said Ukraine is unlikely to reach that target, but its cereal output will probably rise with improved farming technologies.

“Added production in Russia and Ukraine could certainly have an impact on the global supply-demand balance,” Sowell said.

“Over the past decade, combined exports for those two producers have roughly tripled. Since both countries are major exporters … further growth in production would likely have a major impact on (wheat supply).”

Sluggish world demand and soaring Black Sea exports are worrisome for Canadian growers.

Canada is a major player in the global wheat trade, but farmer enthusiasm for the cereal is fading, partly because of weak profitability.

Saskatchewan Agriculture’s crop planning guide for the dark brown soil zone ranks spring wheat’s return over variable expenses down at 12 on a list of list of 16 crops.

Unless there are successive years with weather wrecks, demand growth increases will be needed to cut oversupply and lift prices. Otherwise, wheat will be mired in its secondary role on the Prairies as a rotation crop with canola.

Neil Doty, a grain industry consultant and former wheat scientist at North Dakota State University, said one segment of the population is the likeliest source of new demand for wheat: health-conscious consumers.

“What the (public) wants to know is … that what they’re consuming has high levels of something,” said Doty, who wrote a 2012 report on value added and alternative uses of wheat for Minnesota farm groups.

“The consuming public is moving much more in the direction of nutrient dense foods, versus just tasting good.”

Can wheat become a ‘healthy’ food?

In his report, Doty considered a long list of possibilities for new and enhanced uses of wheat:

  • biodegradable plastics from wheat starch
  • meat substitutes from wheat
  • wheat beer
  • composite materials from wheat straw
  • wheat conversion to ethanol
  • wheat based cat litter
  • waxy wheat, which are varieties with higher levels of starch in the form of amylopectin rather than amylose

He concluded that most of those uses offer limited or little promise.

The real opportunity is promoting the health benefits of wheat and improving the crop’s nutritional characteristics.

“Three things (protein, fibre and antioxidants) have emerged in nutrition awareness in the North American public and also worldwide,” Doty said.

“(They) appear to be big drivers in the food industry right now. Fortunately (for) both wheat and barley, they’re excellent sources of all three.”

Doty is especially excited about antioxidants: molecules that prevent cellular damage and thwart diseases such as cancer.

“(Farmers) are growing wheat varieties that are antioxidant powerhouses,” he said in the report.

“Most consumers are unaware of the tremendous nutritional benefits obtained by consuming whole wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, and aleurone flour products.”

To capitalize on the opportunity, the wheat industry needs to hype the value of antioxidants in grains, Doty said. As well, research is needed to develop varieties with consistent levels of antioxidants.

Another promising opportunity is aleurone flour. The aleurone layer lies between the bran layer and the endosperm of wheat kernels.

Ardent Mills, maker of Robin Hood flour, produces aleuronic flour and promotes it as a nutrient-rich ingredient for other food.

“Nutrition scientists have confirmed that isolated aleurone is preferable to full bran because it contains higher levels of almost all the whole wheat nutrients,” such as vitamin B6, vitamin E, potassium, iron, calcium and zinc, Ardent Mills says on its website.

Nancy Ames, an Agriculture Canada research scientist who specializes in the functional and healthy properties of cereal grains, said the European Food Safety Authority has developed a health claim for aleurone flour. A similar claim in North America could push demand significantly higher.

Doty said Ardent Mills is one of many companies that can produce healthy food from wheat, but the firms haven’t touted the products to food companies or consumers.

Popular spring wheat varieties are already full of nutrients, but they can be improved.

Plant breeders could modify the starch to increase fibre content, or develop starch that digests at a slower rate in the small intestine, Ames said.

However, someone has to fund research into wheat with more antioxidants, more vitamins and healthier starch.

“If you really want to have a boom in the (wheat) marketplace, you need to look at varieties that eliminate coronary heart disease and solve male pattern baldness,” said Paul Hetherington, president of the Baking Association of Canada.

Hetherington was joking, but to make a point.

Health and wellness is a driving force in the food industry and farmers cannot ignore the trend.

A new and improved “super wheat,” chock full of fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, might be needed to arouse public interest.

“To get consumers excited you have to look beyond the yield aspect of your (wheat) varieties,” he said.

“Can we increase the nutrition value in our grains? Subsequently, how do we take that to market?”

Others aren’t convinced that new and healthier varieties are the answer because the public is already bombarded with health claims for cereal crops and oilseeds, such as flax, oats and barley.

Rex Newkirk, formerly vice-president of research and innovation with the Canadian International Grains Institute and now a University of Saskatchewan associate professor, said marketing wheat as a traditional food might have more impact than yet another health claim.

“The bread that your mother made … I think that has more potential than selling on the fancy antioxidant stuff.”

Hetherington said it’s tough for wheat to stand out in the extremely competitive food market because it isn’t shiny or new.

Koji, a fermented rice and a trendy food, is more intriguing than a loaf of bread.

“Baking happens to be a 30,000 year old profession,” he said.

“Bread is bread.”

Whole grains & more whole grains

The gluten-free movement, which may have hit its peak around 2014, definitely cut into demand for bread, bagels and other baked goods.

Wheat advocates fought back with initiatives such as the Healthy Grains Institute and the Whole Grains Council to counter the “gluten is poison” rhetoric.

The message likely had an impact, but many consumers aren’t budging from white bread.

“If you look at sales of pantry breads … the largest category of breads, the percentage of the market that’s whole grain really hasn’t changed in probably 10 years,” Hetherington said, adding that whole grain represents about 20 percent of the pantry bread market.

Ames said survey data shows that only 15 percent of people buy whole wheat bread.

“It’s really surprising to me,” she said. “There are (entire) conferences on whole grains.… Why can’t we get people to eat more?”

Hetherington said it’s pretty simple. Many people dislike the taste, and most consumers prefer Ritz crackers to Ryvita.

“I know medical people who refuse to eat whole grains…. They don’t like it.”

That may be correct, but industry forecasts show the market for whole grain food is expanding rapidly. According to Statistics MRC, a market research firm:

  • The global market for whole grain and high fibre food was $29.4 billion in 2015.
  • The market is expected to grow at 6.6 percent annually, reaching $46.2 billion in 2022.
  • Strong growth in baked goods in Asia may drive much of the growth.

Farmers in the northern U.S. Great Plains and Canadian Prairies are well positioned to satisfy that demand because they produce the best wheat in the world, Doty said.

The growth in whole grain consumption, combined with a new “healthy” reputation for wheat, should move the needle on global demand.

“They (wheat groups) have to keep hammering away at this until the message (sticks),” Doty said.

“I think eventually the consuming public (will) take that high quality wheat message into their thinking.”

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  • ed

    Where to start on this one. It is hard to break bread with idiotic talking heads that are paid to spread double speak. Let’s see. 1.)–There is apparently no demand or use for protein in the world today as highlighted by near non existent protein premiums on Red Spring Wheat post the killing of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) vs premiums as high as a $3/bushel when it was alive and in place. That’s $110/tonne for the more modern smarter farmers among us, although it doesn’t sound like such an embarrassing loss when you refer to it in bushels. NOW however we are fortunate that wheat and barley contain essential ingredients like protein, fibre and antioxidants. But how to duplicate the price results of the CWB. Accidental problem, intention problem or stupid problem. Who knows, but it has got a lot of people scratching their heads to try and solve it. Note! Don’t scramble your perfectly intact Rubic cube unless you know how to get it back to a “fixed” position, like it screwed up, simply don’t care about it being screwed up, or better yet, can get well paid and for over an extended period of time or forever for attempting to fix what you just screwed up even if you don’t know how. 2.)–Wheat has taken second fiddle to crops such as canola in recent years, meaning from Aug. 1st, 2012, (marketing freedumb day) onward for the most part. Well the lower the wheat price gets, (a phenomena that was accurately predicted and well understood by most farmers, all intelligent economists and the entire purchasers of the bulk wheat commodity off the prairies, the giant grain companies), the more this becomes true even when the farmer chased higher yields to make up for the losses. An abundance of good high quality wheat to send out into the world at record profits purchased with the sentiment that they may have to use it for Cat Litter. Brilliant marketing strategy. Just freaking brilliant. Do you think for a minute any buddy in the office is going to want to fix the source of their next raise or Christmas bonus. Seriously…… 3.) 15% of people buy whole wheat bread. That may be numerically true but we nearly all do eat it. Just because Mom may do the shopping for the household that doesn’t mean the family can’t eat the whole wheat products she brings home. Just because the one purchaser for the care home or hospital or the restaurant franchise makes the deal to buy the whole wheat bread, the tens of thousands that eat it sure does dilutes the math doesn’t it. Liars can figure but figures never lie. Spin is spin. 4.) The idea that the market place is not really wanting this stuff right now, (justifies the low price and Cat Litter references), it has hugh potential as a super food, (may need a little plant breeding to tweak that and justify an ALL NEW stratospheric seed and “agronomic package” pricing, and that “your” wheat groups with the farmers check off dollars need to keep harping at the consumer about the health benefits to keep this gravy train rolling. Keep your hopes up farmers, keep doing what you are doing in the mean time and patiently await the reported price increasing demand explosion that is surely just around the corner now. If not next year, the one after that for sure. And while you put your head down and work hard just remember that the best thing for low prices is lower prices to clear the system, and farmer please do not forget to encourage you city cousins to get some more cats.

    • Harold

      Wheat Industry: biodegradable plastics from wheat starch, meat substitutes from wheat, wheat beer, composite materials from wheat straw, wheat based cat litter (by-product). Do these not produce Canadian jobs, and the extra money circulation within Canada? Do they not produce another exporting market for international trade? This applies to all agriculture and more. It is folly to become dependent upon resource exporting and ignoring industry creation within Canada. When you become dependent upon exporting, without Canadian owned industry, you become dependent upon imports. We create Un-employment. Canada amid an abundance of raw materials is lacking in industry producing jobs. We have become a raw resource exporting Country, and into the hands of foreign land owners, and into their “Casino” way of conducting business. The “house” always wins. Canadian owned and directed industry changes the odds.
      Further, a Canadian owned Bank, (not our pretend one since 1974) eliminates the fraudulent national Debt, and makes Canada’s currency powerful – but that is another story of the forbidden knowledge.

      • ed

        Maybe if we could get the minimum wages down to half, ($5/hr) like we did for our wheat, we could look around and find some innovative uses for that as well.

        • Harold

          The first step is to deny our government the right to be involved in business entirely. Lobbying would be eliminated. No door – no entry. No government subsidies and no corporate pay off’s and the list goes on. Who will be in power then? (sob, sob) The answer is: we will !!
          Capitalism creates jobs by producing product that the consumer wants, or that company goes bankrupt when it fails to provide. It does not receive a government bail out. It is called RISK. The company is not in the Market place when it is closed at the will of the people. (dollars) These companies are always looking towards providing the cheapest products to entice consumer spending, and their profits are used for company expansion and more job creation. The company benefits the consumer in meeting consumer demands, and further, the consumer benefits in the buying power that cash retention provides owing to cheaper pricing.
          On the other hand, Government involvement leads to tax payer bailouts, and the regulatory fees of laws created to benefit “friendly” corporate business; boards keeping the inept in business, (lobbyists) creating and increasing the artificially high costs into the market place. Along with more consumer and personal taxation, Government is reducing the spending power of the consumer, and the Capitalist, with higher overall pricing, two fold and more. High personal and business Tax and fees to regulations, lead to the foreclosure of small business, and those professionals take their business and jobs out of the country or cease entirely. Farming has not been exempt, and the corporate standing by offering pennies to the dollar for its farming acquisition. The government is lobbied again after many acquisitions to reduce the burden to the corporation. Our consumer problems are not market driven, they are Government driven.
          Corporation-al-ism (multi-nationalists – lobbyist – “buddies”) and government-al-ism should not be confused with capitalism, or the benefits of Capitalism.
          Wages will come into proper alignment when the government and other corporate thieves are placed in check by the collective people in standing.
          (sob, “we shouldn’t have to”, sob, sob)

          • ed

            Yes! Somebody gets it…. Until such time, LOL, wages will continue to keep dropping closer to zero, adjusted for inflation for most people, say 99% of the workforce. There will be no proper alignment in sight for decades if not longer and most crashes will be profit opportunities for the rich. The utopia will always be just around the corner which is where the saying, “There is always next year” came from. This trend didn’t start yesterday and will not change, but understanding it is a good step to having the skills to sidestep or avoid some of the personal hardships it can dish out. Going along with this stuff is not particularly helpful and could be financially dangerous, but without some knowledge of it will be and is very common, and taking advantage of these principles after you learn some of them, may require sleeping pills to help you sleep at night and the removal of one’s access to mirrors of reflective surfaces.

  • Denise

    If they stopped desiccating the wheat, just before harvesting it, I bet the demand for wheat products would increase!! Consumers are backing away from wheat products, more and more, as they find out that Roundup (glyphosate and additives) residues ,left on the harvested grain, play havoc with people’s digestive tracts.(For examples: IBS,non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, colitis, liver disease, Crohn’s disease, celiac’s and all kinds of gastro-intestional disorders ).
    “Highly refined”wheat flour used in, almost all,commercially baked breads and buns are causing all kinds of health problems. The list is long.
    Consumers want and need more healthy choices of wheat products to feed their families and prevent health problems now and in the future.

  • Welderone

    Yes, it appears Monsanto that sells roundup is only concerned about company profit. Just read an article the other day about Africa. One could say they are probably most all organic growers there. The reason being they do not have modern machinery. People do a lot of work in the fields with hoes and shovels. They also use oxen to pull some of their ploughs. But as the wealth increased some farmers did use glyphosate on crops. The story was then Denise, that the doctors in Africa now noticed the health problems you write about because of the use of Roundup.


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