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.