Wheat experimentation

The news that our Ministry of Agriculture will be launching trials for the production of wheat might have surprised many. We have been taught that this is a temperate-zone crop for so long that we have not appreciated the advances in creating cultivars that are suitable for tropical climates and conditions. A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced by selective breeding. In Guyana, we are familiar with this technique in rice and sugar, and wheat should be no exception.
Sub-Saharan African has millions of acres of tropical land, and shares many characteristics with Guyana, in addition to climate- similarity. It also has a host of poorer countries that are net importers of wheat. Over the last two decades, there have been several initiatives employed to increase the production of wheat in countries other than South African and Ethiopia, which each produce half of their own wheat demand from elevated regions. Most recently, with the supply chain challenges arising from the Ukraine War, the African Development Bank floated a US$1B fund to accomplish this goal. We can learn much from the African experience.
One report, “The Potential for Wheat Production in Africa: Analysis of Biophysical Suitability and
Economic Profitability”, offers some pointers for our policymakers. Firstly, the countries have worked very closely with the non-profit “International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in Mexico. The study aimed “to better understand the dynamics of wheat economies in the Sub-Saharan region, to assess the biophysical feasibility and economic profitability of wheat production with varying input intensification, and to determine the competitiveness of domestic wheat production with imported wheat.”
The Ministry would first have to decide whether it would focus on smallholder production as against large-scale commercial production. In the study, the focus was on the former, and it is possible that the farmers were not able to deal with the “paradigm shift” that is needed in existing farming techniques in the tropics. We note that in the decade since the report, SSA’s production of wheat has not increased significantly.
The report suggested: “While the initial strategy should be utilization of existing varieties, sustainable and profitable production of wheat in Africa in the long term will require investment in wheat research and development. This will increase capacity development at national and regional levels to develop and adapt varieties suitable for different agro-ecological zones.”
In terms of Government policy, for the farmers to be successful, a welter of initiatives by the Government is needed. These “require significant improvements in the provision of extension, credit services, production and supply of seed using existing varieties, in strengthening input supply systems, in support for mechanization of production, investment in marketing efficiency and reduction of transaction costs. This will also require rationalizing imports, the removal of import subsides, and shifting from ‘food aid’ to ‘cash aid’ that will allow purchasing locally.”
We note that our local wheat milling facility sometimes receives PL 480 wheat, and wonder whether the new wheat millers that will have to establish operations would be able to compete with foreign wheat, once the Ukraine War is over.
The Government will have to also determine the composition of wheat imports, quality preferences, and requirements. We have seen this factor operating in our rice sector when world market operations sent prices on a downward slope and our farmers could not make a living from the prices offered by the millers. “The foremost challenge of free trade in wheat is competing with lower-priced, higher-quality imports of grain and wheat-based products. The success of local wheat production will depend on the capacity of local producers and processors to ensure a consistent supply of the right quality and quantity of wheat for end markets and end-users at competitive prices.
“Further research is needed to identify the tastes and preferences of consumers of wheat and wheat-based products, and to assess the capacity of local wheat processing and food manufacturing in order to identify constraints and areas where upgrading is needed.”
There is much work to be done.