Scientists say sub-Saharan farmers only produce a portion of the wheat yield that is possible for the area. DW spoke with Hans-Joachim Braun, head of the world's largest wheat gene bank, about the need for local grains.
DW: Around the world, wheat is the second most important grain after rice. How important is wheat in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to other staples?
Hans-Joachim Braun: Wheat is currently not an important staple in Sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa. So it's not a widely-grown crop, but historically we know wheat has a very high yield potential in many wheat areas of Africa. And we have also noticed that the demand for wheat - and consequently the importation of wheat - is growing faster than for any other staple. That has various reasons: one of it is that there is a demand for diversity in diets, and wheat can provide this diversity. And the other reason, perhaps more importantly, is that there is a very strong migration to the cities, in particular of males, and males prefer convenient food. And wheat is a very convenient food, because you can buy it easily and you can store it for several days.
So there is a growing demand for more wheat in Sub-Saharan Africa and that is why many countries have approached CIMMYT [The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center] for help. They would like to get advice on how to grow wheat; they would like to get seed of adapted varieties. And for this reason we've decided to conduct a big study for potential wheat growth in Sub-Saharan Africa and look where wheat could be produced from a biological point of view, where wheat could be produced economically and where wheat eventually would also be competitive with other crops because no farmer will switch to wheat just for the sake of wheat. A farmer will always choose the crops and the crop rotations with which they earn the most.
You're mentioning money and economic benefits. Now one of the reasons why this could be a possibility for Sub-Saharan Africa is that export-prices, or in that case import-prices for wheat are really high at the moment. What's the current price for wheat on the market and who benefits, and how much economic benefit could be reaped from producing wheat locally in Africa instead of importing it?
The wheat price is currently well above $300 (231 euros) per ton, it's approaching $400 (309 euros) per ton, and that of course is for the main exporting countries. Africa imported more than $12 billion of wheat grains last year. And then one has to recognize that there are also huge imports for processed wheat products, because the processing industry in Africa is not very strong, except for North Africa. And consequently that means there is huge industry potential for a wheat industry, if it's developed, and this is one area we would like to look into. The main exporters of wheat are North America, then Australia, Argentina, West Europe, also Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Black Sea area.
Of these $12 billion in wheat imports, how much could be produced locally instead?
I think if Africa is serious, the potential for wheat production in Africa is there. But it's not just the question of producing it, there's also the issue that many of the production areas are not close to the big cities where the main wheat consumption is. We also need to look at local infrastructure: are there roads from the production area to the main cities? Because much of the time, transportation from let's say Canada to a city in Africa could be cheaper then transporting the wheat from the production area in a country to the main cities.
According to climate change projections, when temperatures go up by 2 or 3 degrees, wheat production will be reduced by around 20 percent - is it really advisable for farmers to increase wheat production instead of grains that might be better suited for increasing temperatures?
That is a very good point. Global climate change will hit wheat production most in South Asia. The figures refer in particular to South Asia: India, Pakistan, Nepal. Wheat production in Sub-Saharan Africa is mainly dependant on natural rainfall. And there, the increasing carbon dioxide will compensate for the losses which are caused by global climate change. So the models for wheat production in Africa would indicate that global climate change at least until the end of this century will not have such a big impact on wheat production as it does for example in South Asia.
You have been calling for increased wheat production in Africa for some years now, even before this new report came out. Do you already see any concrete steps being taken to increase wheat production as you suggest in the next couple of years?
I think Ethiopia is looking into it and has introduced some new varieties. I also know that there's some initial research going on in Madagascar, in some of the Eastern Highland countries. And the Minister of Agriculture for Nigeria has declared that Nigeria wants to become independent and self-sufficient for wheat production with the next six to eight years.
Nigeran farmers like this woman, says Braun, are helping the country to become self-sufficent for wheat
Do you think it's possible for countries to become completely independent of imports?
I think several countries definitely have the potential. One has to see that countries like Nigeria or Zimbabwe had a sound wheat production in the 1970s and 80s. And then, when there was an overproduction, and Europeans and North Americans dumped their wheat on the world market at extremely low prices - that destroyed the wheat industry in many countries. Nigeria certainly has the potential to produce quite a bit of wheat. Mali was also looking into it. And one also has to recognize that in many of the highland areas of Africa, the main problem for wheat is the high night-time temperatures. It's not so much the high temperatures during the day. The night temperatures in these areas are quite favourable for wheat production.
You've mentioned South Asia where changes will not be in favour of wheat. Do you suggest similar changes of crops for other world regions as well?
I think in South Asia we have sufficient genetic variability to develop cultivars' which can cope with global climate change. However, it must be clear that investments in research and development for wheat improvement must increase significantly. The global investments in maize research, mostly in developed countries for example, is four times higher than the global investments in wheat. But I'm confident if more funds are allocated to wheat research, then we will produce the varieties and the production systems which are needed. If we look on a global scale in terms of wheat production, there will be regions which will benefit. These are mainly the high latitude regions - Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada and the Northern parts of the United States. In most other parts it will be either neutral, for example in Africa, because increased carbon dioxide will help wheat to produce higher yields. But even in regions like in Western Europe, say France and Germany, we will eventually see that climate change will have a negative impact on wheat yield potential. And that will be a challenge for wheat breeders and economies to develop the systems which allow them to cope with these challenges.
There are still around one billion people in the world who are undernourished, many of them living in Africa. Which role can wheat play in the future for feeding the world?
For Africa, I think wheat can play an important role, but I do not believe that wheat in the near future will replace some of the current staples like maize or casaba. But wheat will allow added diversity. And it will also allow farmers to have a more diverse crop system and by this diversifying their income.
Hans-Joachim Braun heads the Global Wheat Program at the Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which has the biggest wheat gene bank in the world.
Interview: Anke Rasper / sst