Some 2.5 billion consumers in 89 countries across the globe depend on wheat as staple food. A key source of starch and energy, wheat also provides protein, vitamins, dietary fiber and other nutrients.
Urbanization, a growing middle class and changing lifestyles are driving a rapid rise in demand for wheat. It is estimated that global wheat supply needs would increase to 50 – 60 per cent by 2050, with a world population of 9 billion or more and as many as 6.3 billion city dwellers buying convenience food.
With approximately 15 per cent of the world’s arable land planted with wheat, this ancient grain is the most widely grown staple food crop and key to global food security as the earth’s population rises. However, in spite of its key role in combating hunger and malnutrition, the major staple grain faces threats from climate change, variable weather, disease, predators and many other challenges.
To tackle this challenge, scientists from all major wheat growing regions in the world gathered at the first International Wheat Congress (IWC) in Saskatoon, the city in the heart of Canada’s western wheat growing province, Saskatchewan.
The premiere international gathering of scientists working on wheat research co-hosted by the CIGAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), national governments, foundations, development banks, other public and private agencies, had over 900 delegates from 50 different countries.
Participants included researchers from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (DGGW) and the University of Saskatchewan where they discussed the latest research on wheat germplasm, and cutting-edge scientific projects and achievements in wheat development.
Why Canada, the story behind the rise
The choice of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to host the first major gathering of wheat community since the 2015 International Wheat Conference in Sydney, Australia, is symbolic as Canada is one of the largest producers of wheat in the world. Saskatoon grows half of the wheat in Canada and is the country’s largest producer of 14 different crop varieties.
The region was known as the wheat province as well as the breadbasket of Canada and indeed the world for many years. In the early years the wheat economy was the engine of growth for the country and it drew people from around the world to build a new life in the early 1900’s.
Telling the story behind Saskatchewan’s success in wheat development, the premier of Saskatchewan, Scott Moe, told delegates the region understood the importance of research and the power of innovation in the early days.
He explained the research of a Canadian cerealist, Charles Saunders, who developed early-maturing hard spring wheat – in particular, Marquis wheat, an early high-protein variety, spiraled production in the region in the early 1990’s, saying over 18 million hectares of the variety was planted in western Canada within the period.
“We were mindful that innovation powers progress in this industry. For example in the 1900’s there were about 13,000 farmers in Saskatchewan, 6 years later there was 56,000 farmers in this province and within that period production grew from 4.3 million bushels a year of annual production to about 32 million bushels a year, more than 74 per cent increase in six short years,” he added.
Emphasizing the importance of research and innovation in wheat development, director-general of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Canada’s Science and Technology Branch – Prairie Region, Dr. Joyce Irene Boye, averred that wheat is a staple and diet of many people across the globe underscoring the need for wheat growing regions to continue to grow safe, sustainable wheat for the entire population of the world.
The food research scientist urged delegates to figure out how to produce enough wheat so the growing population of the world would have enough food to eat.
“The fact is that between now and 2030, we have 10 growing cycles left to grow enough food to feed 1 billion more people and between 2030 and 2050 we will have only 20 cycles left to grow enough food for another billion more people.
“The time to work together to ensure we have the supply of food for the globe is now and the group we have here and the knowledge going to be shared here today is going to make sure we have the supplies we need as we move forward to 2030 and 2050,” she added.
What Africa Can Learn From Canada
Food insecurity remains a major challenge in developing nations, especially in Africa, despite major social and economic advances. Wheat-based foods are the major staple in Africa. The population rise has further driven a rapid rise in demand for wheat but production falls short and consuming countries draw on foreign reserves to import grain annually.
Speaking to our reporter, senior scientist at CIMMYT, Bekele Abeyo, pointed out that though one crop is not the solution for every country, there is great potential for wheat growing regions in Africa to improve/scale up their production sustainably by embracing research and innovative technological solutions that can improve wheat.
According to him, “what Africa can learn from Canada and other wheat producing nations like the USA is how to use existing technologies so we can produce it locally and we can invest our resources to develop on research to produce more technology so we can use in Africa to make it self-sufficient.”
The wheat breeder and pathologist stressed that research was the base and foundation for any development, urging wheat developing countries in Africa to invest on research and development to achieve self-sufficiency.
“So, the best thing for Africa is to know the resources they have and to invest on research to develop technologies that can change their livelihoods by boosting production and productivity of crops they grow. This directly means that as I am spending a lot of hard currency to import, if they invest small amount on research and use small package of technology, they can boost production and become self-sufficient,” he added.
The need for enabling policies
Speaking exclusively to our reporter, the 2014 World Food Prize winner, Dr Sanjaya Rajaram, highlighted the importance of government’s enacting enabling laws that would allow for the deployment of innovative technologies that can help improve production and make Africa food secured.
The agriculturist contended that researchers cannot use novel diversity and technology to improve the genetic gains and breeding efficiency if there are no enabling laws backing such technologies.
“There are 55 ECOWAS member-states and all these can be done. There are huge possibilities in these regions. The possibility is huge but we need the policy which must be revised in such a way that it is supported locally. It must be done properly,” he said.
Rajaram maintained Africa has massive land but still needs proper policies to use the right technology that would benefit researchers, farmers and the society at large, saying Africa is completely ready to utilize emerging technologies to feed its growing population without which they will not be able to produce enough food for the people.
Modern wheat breeding practices aimed at high-input farming systems has the potential to promote genetic gains and yield stability across a wide range of environments and management conditions, benefitting not only large-scale and high input farmers but also resource-poor, small holder farmers who do not use large amounts of fertilizer, fungicide and other inputs.
World-class breeding research can reach farmers faster with wheat varieties improved for yield, disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance as well as nutritional and processing quality.
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