Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published October 21, 2013, 11:05 AM

Wheat exports fall behind

U.S. wheat production stood at 1.4 billion bushels in 1960, dropping to 1.1 billion bushels before taking off as the export boom of the 1970s began to surge.

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood Shaffer, Agweek

U.S. wheat production stood at 1.4 billion bushels in 1960, dropping to 1.1 billion bushels before taking off as the export boom of the 1970s began to surge. By 1981 and 1982, U.S. wheat production had reached 2.8 billion bushels, double its level just 20 years earlier. And farmers and politicians alike thought that ever-expanding exports had solved the “farm problem.” Since then U.S. wheat production has leveled off remaining in the 2 billion to 2.5 billion-bushel range as producers sought more profitable alternatives.

In the meantime, wheat production in the rest of the world increased by more than three times from 7.2 billion bushels in 1960 to 21.8 billion bushels in 2012 and non-U.S. domestic consumption made a similar gain.

Wheat exports from the U.S., which stood at 654 million bushels in 1960, surged to 1.8 billion bushels in 1981, a level not seen since. Non-U.S. wheat exports were roughly comparable to U.S. wheat exports in 1981 at 1.9 billion bushels. Since 1981, U.S. wheat exports have been variable with a downward-to-flat trend. On the other hand, non-U.S. wheat exports — also variable — have trended upward.

In 2012, the U.S. exported 1 billion bushels or 100 million bushels shy of half its 1981 level. In contrast, non-U.S. wheat exports more than doubled between 1981 and 2012 (4.1 billion bushels in 2012). The 2012 numbers appear to be representative, since the 2012 levels are nearly identical to the latest five-year (2008 to 2012) averages of U.S. and non-U.S. wheat exports.

Between 1960 and 1984, wheat exports accounted for more than 50 percent of U.S. wheat utilization in all but four years, with seven years above 60 percent, including 1981 when exports peaked at 68 percent. Since 1984, U.S. wheat exports have accounted for more than 50 percent of U.S. wheat utilization only seven times.

In the U.S., food, seed and industrial consumption of wheat has increased steadily over the period, from 560 million bushels in 1960 to 1 billion bushels in 2012, when exports and food demand matched each other. Feed demand for wheat has been highly variable over the total period since 1960.

As we think about meeting the challenge of feeding an additional 2 billion people by 2050, up from 7 billion today, the historical record suggests that the goal will likely be met, with U.S. exports filling in the year-to-year variation in production elsewhere in the world.

During the past 52 years — 1960-2012 — the world’s population increased 133 percent from 3 billion to 7 billion. At the same time, the wheat harvested area increased by 6.7 percent, and the wheat yield increased by 163 percent. As a result, the world’s production of wheat increased by 181 percent.

As it was in 1960, the issue of hungry people in the world is not a matter of production or exports from the U.S.; it is a matter of poverty. Without enabling people to produce their own food or find jobs that will allow them to purchase the food they need, hunger in 2050 will likely remain an issue of poverty not production.

Editor’s note: Ray is director of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.

Tags: