Wheat | future environmental issue 

Wheat is a super crop that grows well, yields plenty and lends itself to scale. Most importantly everybody wants it because the grain is full of calories and can be made into a host of saleable items from pasta to Panini.

Global production has grown to average 680 million tonnes per annum over the last 5 year and supplies 20% of daily protein and calories.

In the developing world it is the second most important food crop after rice with demand expected to increase by 70% as world population growth continues that will mean global production will need to grow at 1.7% almost double its current growth rate. 

So why might wheat-production be a future environmental issue?

Business viability

The most efficient production of wheat comes from intensive agriculture. Ask Alloporus explains some of the environmental challenges of intensive agriculture from homogenization problems that are a risk to all monoculture crops [especially disease and pests] to overreliance on inputs.

If yield is dependent on fertilizer inputs and the price of fertilizer goes up, then farm viability is at risk from the double whammy of higher costs and lower revenue.

This type of business risk is not unique to wheat. It affects all industrial agriculture and increasingly flows into subsistence agriculture especially where small-scale farmers must rely on inputs rather than traditional shifting agriculture methods.

typically fields are large for modern industrial agriculture scale cropping, NSW, Australia

Wheat in the diet

Primates are food generalists — omnivores in the jargon.  Fruits, nuts, tubers, flowers, sheets, the occasional insect and, where chance allows, meat.  

Hominids are primates too. Our evolutionary ancestors were also generalists and the anthropologist tell us that this didn’t change much with bipedal hunter gathering on the savannas.

Genetic and archaeological evidence suggest that Homo sapiens have been around for at least 200,000 years.  And for almost all of this time, until just 10,000 years ago, modern humans were generalist omnivores.

Tribes encamped by the ocean or lakes would have done well on shellfish and no doubt the odd woolly mammoth fed a fair few on a feast day barbecue. 

Many humans would have got most of their calories from fruits, tubers, routes and some occasional specialties like honey and termites [reproductive termites that fly after rains in summer are highly nutritious and surprisingly tasty].

Then we invented agriculture and for a while little changed. It wasn’t until we added energy and inputs to agriculture that wheat became one of just a handful of grains to feed multitudes.

And it worked. All those extra calories were readily converted into world population growth.

Except that this super food is not what our ancestors ate and not what our bodies evolved to digest.

In the future this imbalance will be a huge environmental issue.  

It will go something like this:

  • many people will stop eating wheat when they realize they feel better and are healthier without it in their diet
  • these people will move to other foods
  • demand for calories from foods other than wheat will outstrip supply
  • food tensions will be common 
  • more land and water will be required to try and meet demand from less calorie efficient foods
  • food security will be even harder to achieve than it is already

But at least those on the paleo-diet will be healthy.

Pragmatology

We are what we eat, or so it is said. 

And although we believe we have some choice in the matter, the bulk of calories we need — at least 2,500 each per day just for maintenance — come from grains.

Sure we choose the Panini over the pasta for lunch but just try cutting out grains for a week and you will see how much we rely on them.

It will be impossible to traverse the demographic transition without the calories they supply.


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Professor Brian Springett checks out an early season wheatfield in Western Australia 


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