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All Grain no Gain

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, now well into its fifth month, has brought fresh uncertainty to many nations around the world raising questions around national security, fuel, and food supplies. Both Ukraine and Russia rank among the world’s largest producers of wheat, contributing 24m tons and 72m tons to the global supply respectively. Wheat is such an important symbol to Ukraine that its flag is derived from the image of a field of yellow wheat growing beneath a blue sky:

Expectedly, however, this production has taken a steep nosedive given the evolving situation in both countries – but are there any solutions to help ease the burden brought about by Putin’s war in Ukraine?

The Current Situation 

Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, both Russia and Ukraine have yet to come to any formal agreements pertaining to peace, despite the best efforts of the Ukrainian side. Recently, however, the two countries have signed a major deal to resume exports of Ukrainian grain through the black sea.

The deal promises some hope to those countries most reliant on Ukrainian wheat exports: Moldova (91.8% of its total wheat imports coming from Ukraine), Lebanon (81.2%), Tunisia (49.3%), Libya (48.3%), and Pakistan (47.9%), among many others.

These countries, often lacking the purchasing power to secure new import deals elsewhere, have been particularly badly hit by the dip in production, with prices for essential goods such as bread and pasta rising inline with the shortage.

Is There a Fix? 

Wheat is one of the most important grains we produce – according to estimates, 20% of the calories consumed by humans come from wheat. Bread, pasta, cakes, and many other food types contain the grain, meaning the knock-on effect of a shortage will be seen in a wide range of products.

An international team of scientists, led by the UK’s Rothamsted Research, has recently put forward the idea that world-wide grain yields could be maximised through intensive selective breeding efforts. Dr Mikhail Semenov, co-leader of the research, had the following to say:

“Current wheat cultivars are, on average, only at the half-way point with respect o the yields they could produce given the mismatches between their genetics and local wheat-growing conditions. Global what production could be doubled by the genetic improvement of local wheat cultivars – without increasing global wheat area.”

The scientists analysed the genes responsible for different aspects of the plant’s make-up such as size, shape, and metabolism, and then ran simulations to design plants ‘perfect’ for any local environment.

While modelling does not always equate to real-world solutions and much more work is still needed to be done, this line of innovative thinking does show real promise. The so-called ‘yield gap’ presents a real efficiency problem for countries with lower yields, and wheat is a space-consuming product; increasing the efficiency of what is already in use would prove invaluable to many producers.

Looking to the Future

Despite the seemingly promising development of a wheat-export deal between Russia and Ukraine, reports have surfaced since of Russia stealing large quantities of the Ukrainian supply to send back its own country.

This only serves to highlight the incredibly unpredictable nature of the global food supply chain we often take for granted. In the last few years alone a pandemic and a war have threatened the supplies of millions around the globe and there can be no telling what lurks beyond the horizon next.

Because of this, it has become increasingly important for countries to make moves towards self-sufficiency to try and curb the impact of external forces on their own supply chains. Technology-assisted production methods seem to be the best way to combat this, though many have a long way to go in terms of practicality and cost-effectiveness; investment at this stage could pay dividends later.

If you are involved in food production – or the technology used to facilitate it – Polestar is keen to hear from you. We have experience working with a variety of producers and sellers and we’re always on hand to answer any questions you might have about your business and your next steps towards either selling or taking it to the next level.  

“Not surprisingly, the countries with the lowest current yields could gain the most from closing their genetic field gaps”

By Rebecca Garland on 29/07/2022