Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT's Global Wheat Program, spoke to Deutsche Welle about one of the world's most important crops.
Wheat is the world's most important cereal
When it comes to giving the world its daily bread, Hans-Joachim Braun is an old hand. Braun is director of the Global Wheat Program at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, which has the biggest wheat gene bank in the world. Braun dropped by Deutsche Welle to tell us about one of the world's most vital crops.
DW: How important is wheat in feeding the world?
Hans-Joachim Braun: Wheat is, after rice, the most important crop. About 22 percent of all calories in the developing world come from wheat, but it's extremely variable. You have regions like North Africa, Central Asia, and Afghanistan where up to 50 percent of all calories coming from wheat, and also about 15 to 18 percent of all protein.
Wheat has been cultivated for thousands of years
How many farmers in developing countries depend on wheat?
There are roughly 110 million hectares of wheat in the developing world, 220 million in total. Wheat is the most widely grown cereal in the world, and of course millions and millions of small farmers depend on wheat. The average farm size in many countries is about a hectare, so if we say 110 million, there could be 110 million families, and then you expand this, so it's a huge number.
So would that mean for example that in the developed world – like in the US, or in Europe, they would be big farms whereas in the developing world it would be more small farms growing wheat?
Yes, in the developed world there was a tendency to reduce the number of farmers and make the farm sizes bigger and bigger to come to commercial industrialised crop production. … 30 thirty percent of the wheat in the developed world is consumed as animal feed, whereas in the developing world basically all wheat is consumed as food. A lot of wheat never sees the market.
What is your organisation's task in assisting farmers?
Our objective is to develop wheat cultivars which can be grown by small farmers. So what we do is we develop thousands of lines, and we distribute this material free to anyone who wants to use it – our main partners are the national programs – and then they evaluate these lines.
Since we breed for small farmers, I really would like to emphasise that the Green Revolution varieties (of the 1960s and 70s) have been criticised for needing (so much) water and fertiliser. But this was necessary in order to have high yields. The new varieties, if you apply fertiliser and water, are much more efficient, and what is in particular important is that they are also resistant to the major diseases.
In developed countries, most farms are bigger than in the developing world
We still have one billion people hungry in the world. Do you think we need a new Green Revolution, and how would that look?
Well we definitely need a new Green Revolution, and here I have to go to Norman Borlaug (the deceased father of the Green Revolution and a leading consultant to CIMMYT).
When he received the Nobel Prize in 1970, he said the Green Revolution had given us maybe one or two decades, but we have only gained time. We must continue to invest in agricultural research, we have to make the cultivars better, and unfortunately that didn't happen. There was a lot of complacency, in particular in the 90s.Today we are seeing some of the consequences.
In India, skyrocketing prices for fertilizer and seeds are making survival hard for small farmers
Predictions indicate that the climate will change, and when the temperature goes up by two to three percent, then wheat yields in developing countries will go down by maybe 20 percent. Just to maintain the current yields would be an achievement in 20 to 30 years, but on top of that we nearly have to increase the yield by 60 percent.
The Green Revolution did help some countries – Mexico and Asia really benefited from it, because yields were boosted very quickly and more people were fed. But it never reached Africa in the same way. Do you think that other methods need to be used for Africa?
I think that from a biological point of view, similar approaches could be used in Africa. However, what was not recognised is that in Africa, the incentives for farmers to invest in fertilisers were not there. There were no markets...In Asia, when the farmers produced more, they could go to the market and sell it and get money. In Africa, in many countries these markets really don't exist, so farmers are just subsistence farmers, they just produce enough for themselves, but they have very few incentives to produce more. Without this market development, I think it will be very difficult to have another Green Revolution.
How do you feel about genetically modified crops?
CIMMYT has worked with genetically modified organisms, with transgenic wheat; we believe this has great potential for the future, so we also would like to have these products ready once wheat is released. There is currently no genetically modified wheat released as a variety in the world, and consequently there is no transgenic wheat grown. The EU and the Japanese government are very anti-GM, and they sometimes reflect this policy also in the developing countries. I think this is not really fair.
Critics fear genetically modified crops could pose unforeseen hazards
But they also have fears - critics say GM could be dangerous.
I don't share this fear. So far there is basically no evidence that genetically modified crops have been harmful, or that they have been harmful to humans. I would like to mention an example: one of the most widely used technologies in genetically modified crops is herbicide resistance. That means if you apply herbicides to a field, all weeds will die, except for the wheat. Now if you go to Africa, for instance to Ethiopia, one of the main jobs of women is weeding. If you would offer them a herbicide-resistant variety, that would free so much time for these women
In the past couple of years, experts have said that we need to help small farmers more, if we really want to feed the world. But you have farmers in India for example facing really hard times, they can barely survive on their subsistence farming, let alone sell their crops. How do you think that can be changed?
I think in many countries you really have to develop new economies. And also, the small farmers need to be better empowered, which also means that small farmers need to get access to credit, which is extremely important (to the development of the market).
There are many different traditional bread recipies all over the world
I think then we also have to be realistic. A farmer who only has half a hectare, to get him out of real poverty will be difficult. But if you have agricultural development, then you can free some people who hopefully then can move into other professions. But it has to be said, since the mid-70s, there has been not one single country which didn't go through agricultural development to come to industrialisation. And I think that has to be recognised. Aid has to go back into agriculture again.
You mentioned earlier the many problems facing agriculture. Maybe we have to find completely new ways of feeding people, maybe wheat and other crops are not the solution for the future?
Well first of all, I think it's time that we bring the population monster back into the public debate. Population growth was hotly debated in the 70s. But in the last years you really don't hear about it very much, but it is the population growth which is the underlying problem and that has to be addressed. In a country like China it seems to have reached a plateau now, but in India, it seems, every year the population increases (by) the population of Australia (around 20 million people). Pakistan is nearly supposed to double its population. They will have, in 2050, nearly the same population as the US today. But if you ask me about whether we can produce enough crops, I think we can. The yields are still very low in some parts of the world, and if we use modern technology, modern varieties, modern agronomic practices, then I'm sure that we can produce the 50 percent more crops than we need by 2050. But it requires a massive investment in research and in development.
Do you see that research and that interest happening?
There is a lot of lip service at present…after the food crisis in 2008 it looked like there was tremendous interest, and then the next tsunami - the economic crisis - hit, and as we say the caravan moves on, this was the new problem. All in all though, there is more awareness, and I think our political leaders are willing to invest more in agricultural research and development again.
Interview: Anke Rasper
Editor: Nathan Witkop