Wheat alternatives that can secure the global food supply
The war in Ukraine has highlighted our dependence, not only on Russian fossil fuels, but the massive wheat harvests that flow from the region.
Russia and Ukraine are the world’s first and fifth top wheat exporters respectively, and together supply well over 20% of the staple globally.
Much ends up in the Middle East and Africa, including in Egypt, the world’s top wheat importer that sources around 80% of its grain from Russia and Ukraine. The country is now subsidizing bread prices as costs skyrocket and supplies dwindle.
The grain shortage sparked by the war is also exacerbating an “unprecedented food emergency” this year in the Sahel and West Africa region, according to the UN’s World Food Program. Kenya, Somalia and much of Ethiopia are at risk of acute food insecurity.
Climate change, including an extended drought now ravaging western Africa, is making food scarcity worse. Wheat yields could drop by 7% for every degree Celsius of global warming, especially due to decreasing rainfall, experts warned last week.
To combat food insecurity, countries like Egypt are trying to bolster food independence by expanding domestic production. But wheat is now also being planted in the Egyptian desert, even though that will demand more fertilizers, and scarce water resources.
Common wheat has a shallow root system and is therefore more susceptible to drought. But providing around 20% of calories consumed by humans, this dominant hybrid grain is so popular because it is high yielding, and creates a white flour that can be adapted endlessly into processed foods.
One problem with common wheat is that it’s seasonal, meaning the plant dies after harvest and has to be replanted every year. It also has a shallow root system that is not super effective at sequestering carbon deep underground.
As an antidote, a new perennial grain called Kernza has been developed by The Land Institute, a sustainable agriculture NGO based in the US state of Kansas.
A derivative of wheat grass, Kernza’s roots grow to 10 feet (3 meters), meaning the plant can sequester a lot more carbon from the air. Its long roots also maintain soil health by resisting erosion.
Perennial growth helps to build more biodiverse and drought-resistant soil, while also saving on the energy and resources required for annual replanting.