TWO former Soviet republics have potential to become rising powers in the global wheat trade, writes PETER HEMPHILL
Both countries have low productivity and infrastructure problems, but there is potential for them to provide the necessary production needed to counter any world wheat shortfall.
Analysis of wheat production and consumption by The Weekly Times has indicated the world's grain growers are likely to produce enough wheat to keep the global population fed.
But the analysis is predicated on whether farmers can maintain current yield gains and there being no catastrophic disasters in major growing regions.
CSIRO crop scientist Tony Fischer said it would be difficult for wheat breeders to continue making gains at the current rate of about 1 per cent a year.
At last week's Grains Research and Development Corporation farm adviser research update in Ballarat, visiting British cropping specialist Jim Orson said wheat yields in Britain peaked at about eight tonnes a hectare in 1996 after rising steadily from about four tonnes/ha in the 1970s.
But Mr Orson said wheat yields had almost plateaued since 1996 and would continue at relatively flat rates unless new technology could be found to give the industry another burst in growth.
"That must be in plant breeding and it is probably GM (genetically modified) technology," he said.
He said much of western Europe was in a similar position to Britain.
Ukraine and Kazakhstan were in a different situation, as their yields were much lower than countries such as Britain, France and Germany.
But past wheat production had shown both to be erratic.
Mr Orson said Ukraine faced volatility through weather extremes: it can get very hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.
Kazakhstan is the world's ninth biggest country by land area, but its major downfall is that it is landlocked.
Wheat is a major staple crop. Per capita consumption of wheat in Kazakhstan is the highest in the world at more than 300kg a person - well over double that of Australians.
The US Department of Agriculture estimated Kazakhstan's wheat crop at 22.50 million tonnes last harvest.
While that fell well short of Australia's record crop this year of about 28 million tonnes, what was significant was that it broke the previous record harvest in Kazakhstan of 19 million tonnes dating to 1956 - the year Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games.
Kazakhstan's wheat crops have rarely reached beyond 10 million tonnes up until 2000.
But during the past six years, the harvests have steadily climbed to more than 20 million tonnes.
Wheat harvests in Ukraine have often topped 20 million tonnes.
But its crops can be variable.
In 2001 and 2002, Ukraine produced wheat crops of 21.35 million tonnes and 20.56 million tonnes, respectively.
Drought reduced it to 3.6 million tonnes the next year.
In 2006 and 2007, Ukrainian production dropped back to about 14 million tonnes.
Last year, the crop was 22 million tonnes. Ukrainian Farm Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk recently said poor weather meant the wheat crop might be as low as 12 million tonnes this year.
Ukraine had a dry autumn and winter, and its crops are now reportedly in poor shape.
But in the longer term, both Ukraine and Kazakhstan have huge opportunities to produce good crops.
Former ABB Grain Ltd managing director Michael Iwaniw said Ukraine's inconsistent grain production was due to the country suffering from more volatile weather than other regions in Europe.
Farm structures, productivity and infrastructure were also acting as handbrakes on winter crop production.
"For that whole area, productivity and infrastructure are about 60 per cent lower than the rest of Europe," Mr Iwaniw said.
"They also don't have good varietal controls.
"And a lot of the farms are quite small. But they have huge opportunities."
Infrastructure in Kazakhstan is poor.
Last year's wheat crop was better than expected.
But with all the extra grain, the USDA did not expect more would be exported, purely and simply because it did not have the capabilities to do so.
The storage infrastructure was struggling to store extra production.
And more was expected to be fed domestically.
There were limited means of getting the crop to export positions.
However, with more investment in transport infrastructure and storage facilities and improvements in plant breeding and farm-input expenditure, both Kazakhstan and Ukraine had potential to become world wheat power houses, the USDA said.