While wheat isn’t always used to make the healthiest foods, it’s is a key source of nutrition for billions of people across the globe. Wheat provides roughly 20% of calories and protein for more than 3 billion people every year.
Historically, wheat has been an easy and inexpensive crop to produce, considering it can grow in many temperate climates and withstand fluctuations in weather more easily than most fruits and veggies. However, new research shows that nearly all major producers of wheat across the globe, with the exception of Russia, are now experiencing problems with production due to effects of climate change.
In countries such as the U.S., India and many throughout Europe, wheat crops are threatened by extreme weather, such as droughts, rising temperatures and floods. This is not only driving up the prices of wheat and products such as bread, cereals and pasta, but it’s also increasing rates of food scarcity in certain vulnerable areas of the world, such as Africa.
Study Findings: Wheat Threatened by Extreme Weather
Wheat production in the year 2022 has been described as “highly volatile,” based on factors such as the war between Ukraine and Russia (Ukraine is responsible for about a fifth of the world’s high-grade wheat production) and also increasing global temperatures.
How is wheat affected by climate change? Studies show that as many wheat-exporting regions — especially those located in the extreme heat belt — are experiencing warm, dry weather patterns and at times extreme weather, such as droughts or floods, rates of wheat growth are suffering,
Wheat needs a steady amount of rainfall to grow well, but this isn’t happening in much of the U.S. and Canada. In places such as the U.S. Central Plains, for example — including Kansas and the Dakotas, which are major suppliers — wheat growth is well below the normal yearly average. Many growers are struggling to either plant or grow wheat successfully due to fields being either too wet or too dry.
In Canada, droughts and windy conditions are eroding soils, taking a toll on agriculture in general. In India, wheat production is way down (up to 50% in some regions) due to extreme heat, and in China, unusual seasonal floods are ruining high rates of wheat crops for many farmers.
What It Means
Outside of China, global wheat forecasts are expected to drop through 2023 to the lowest level in 14 years.
The main concerns with wheat crops being threatened by extreme weather include:
- Rising prices/inflation of wheat and wheat products.
- Disruptions to economies in countries where wheat is an important exported good.
- Increased risk for hunger in some locations where people rely on wheat for a significant amount of calories.
- Lower nutrient levels within wheat. As higher levels of carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere, this impacts photosynthesis and water retention within crops, causing their growing seasons to shorten and limiting the amount of nutrients that the plants absorb. This results in less nutrient-rich crops.
- Less wheat to feed livestock.
Climate change is also expected to have negative impacts on other major crops as well, such as corn and rice. Growth of corn is expected to slow considerably over the next decade. This is raising concerns considering that corn is a major crop in parts of the world such as the U.S., China, and Central and South America.
How much wheat do we have left?
In June 2022, one food insecurity expert warned the U.N. that there are only about 10 weeks of wheat supplies left in the world. This was following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted worldwide supplies.
While the global wheat supply has rebounded somewhat since the start of the Ukraine-Russia war, it’s fallen significantly over the past several years.
What weather is best for growing wheat?
Wheat grows best in temperate climates, as opposed to those that are very hot or very cold. This means that as some places warm up over the next several decades, wheat may actually start to be grown in broader areas, such as Northern United States and Canada, North China Plains, Central Asia, Southern Australia, and East Africa.
On the other hand, growers in warmer locations will struggle to produce the normal amount of wheat that they’re accustomed to growing, causing serious economic shifts.
Tips to Combat Climate Change
What can we do to help protect the world’s wheat supply? On a global scale, efforts are being made to help lower greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent global warming and climate change.
Another strategy that can improve the food supply overall is regenerative agriculture, which has been defined as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”
Regenerative agriculture offers many agricultural benefits, not to mention benefits for the planet as a whole. For example, it can help:
- Enhance the ecosystem and reverse effects of climate change.
- Boost the nutrient density of crops by rebuilding healthy soil. One study found that regenerative soil was seven times healthier and had higher levels of several minerals and vitamins, including B vitamins, calcium, vitamin K, copper, phosphorus, vitamin E and more. This may lower the risk for deficiencies and diseases in some parts of the world.
- Protect biodiversity of crops.
- Improve water quality.
- Improve crop yields and make crops more resilient to extreme climate fluctuations.
- Support the health of livestock, insects and other animals.
- Are we almost out of wheat? Not exactly, but wheat production appears to be in trouble due to climate change (plus the aftermath of the war in Ukraine).
- Wheat cannot grow easily without steady rain and temperate climates. In locations where it’s getting hotter, plus more frequent droughts and floods, wheat is failing to thrive.
- This is causing problems such as less nutrient-rich wheat, higher prices, low supply and risk for malnutrition.