The world needs more wheat. In peaceful times, Russia and Ukraine supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports. The war between them has contributed to shortages and inflated costs. Consumers in Bangladesh, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and other countries depend on what Russian and Ukrainian farmers grow. Yet war-related shortages have obscured a more basic challenge: Wheat farming has failed to keep up with the advances that have transformed production of other essential grains.
I used to be a wheat farmer. At least that’s how I thought of myself in the 1980s and ’90s. Growing wheat made a lot of sense in North Dakota’s dry and cool climate. It was the state’s major crop for a long time. Today, however, I mainly grow corn and soybeans. My neighbors do too. According to the state agriculture commissioner’s office, planted soybean acreage exceeded wheat acreage in 2021 for the first time ever. We still plant wheat, but mostly because it works well in rotation with corn and soybeans rather than because of its intrinsic value as a commodity.
The numbers tell the story. Around the turn of the century, my farm produced between 45 and 50 bushels of wheat an acre. This summer, I’ll aim for 65 bushels—an improvement of around 30%.
That’s fine, but it can’t match the progress agricultural scientists have made with corn and soybeans. Three decades ago, a good year meant 90 bushels of corn and 25 bushels of soybeans an acre. This season those amounts would be disastrously low. My neighbors and I expect twice as much production from every acre. We’ve shifted away from growing wheat because it makes economic sense.
The difference between the modest improvement in wheat and the huge improvement in corn and soybeans is technology. The genetic-modification technologies that make my production more efficient and defend my corn and soybeans from weeds, pests, extreme weather and disease aren’t available for wheat.
It’s not a problem of biology but a choice. Scientists know how to produce genetically modified wheat. Yet the wheat industry has refused to commercialize it. The original decision by industry leaders to avoid the commercialization of genetically modified wheat came when the technology was new. Greenpeace warned darkly of the dangers of growing “frankenfood.” Their arguments always were weak, and today scientists know conclusively that genetically modified crops are safe to eat. They’re beneficial for the environment because they allow us to grow more food on less land. The overwhelming majority of America’s corn and soybeans are genetically modified, and the technology is also common among alfalfa, canola, cotton, papayas and sugar beets.
The wheat industry never adapted. It was concerned about the acceptance of genetically modified wheat in export markets and decided not to take a chance. That might have been a valid concern then, but not anymore. Around the world, farmers have grown billions of acres of genetically modified crops. They have become a trusted and effective tool of conventional agriculture. People everywhere eat food derived from them every day.
The world is ready for genetically modified wheat and its better yields. On May 6, Australia and New Zealand approved imports of genetically modified wheat, even though it is not widely grown. They aren’t the first countries to do this, as Argentina and Brazil also have approved imports of genetically modified wheat flour. Yet the decision by Australia and New Zealand marks a milestone. Whereas Argentina and Brazil always have embraced genetic modification of crops, Australia and New Zealand have remained more skeptical. If other countries join them, the case against genetically modified wheat would vanish completely.
In March, global food prices hit an all-time high. As long as war rages between Russia and Ukraine, wheat will stay costly. The U.S. could perform a useful leadership role by approving the technology for cultivation and sale domestically—and encouraging other countries to approve innovative and safe wheat technology. That type of leadership would help in the fight against food-price inflation and improve the long-term outlook for global food security. It would also be good for American farmers like me.
This column was previously published in the Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2022.