Time to promote wheat substitutes

Even before Russian tanks started rolling into Ukraine, the price of wheat has already been rising (See, “Soaring wheat prices are raising bread costs,” in the BusinessMirror, November 3, 2021). Bloomberg reported in November that key exporters of the crop, which is processed into flour, were hit by droughts, frost and heavy rains in 2021. This made flour-based products more expensive, particularly in countries where noodles and bread are considered as staple food.

As Russia and Ukraine are key exporters of the crop, the faceoff between the two countries further tightened wheat supplies, sending prices to unprecedented levels. Reuters reported that wheat prices rose over last week, as the two countries remain unable to ship their crop to their top buyers. The need to look for other wheat sources is putting pressure on global suppliers. Other wheat producing countries could put in place export restrictions to safeguard domestic supplies, according to a Reuters report.

The scramble for supplies will hurt countries like the Philippines that rely on the imported grain. While the Philippines imports most of its wheat requirements from the United States, supply curbs caused by the war in Eastern Europe could send wheat prices to unprecedented levels (See, “War to make noodles, bread more expensive,” in the BusinessMirror, February 28, 2022). Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority showed that the country imported nearly 3.29 million metric tons of food-grade wheat and 2.734 MMT of feed wheat last year valued at $988.75 million and $742.76 million, respectively.

As the volatility in commodity prices is expected to continue, unless Russia soon pulls out of Ukraine, local policymakers must push for expanding the use of alternatives in making bread products. Filipino bakers had been using malunggay and sweet potato in recent years. The Department of Science and Technology had even developed Sagip-Nutri Flour, a blend of powders made from nutritious and indigenous crops, such as cassava, sweet potato, moringa (malunggay), squash, and mungbean or munggo.

The resulting products from flour alternatives would boost efforts of the government to prevent stunting among children and improve maternal health. Expanding the use of alternatives would reduce the country’s reliance on imported food items like wheat and cushion the impact of global price swings on domestic food supply. An increase in the demand for flour alternatives would also mean higher income for planters cultivating indigenous crops, like malunggay and squash.

These alternatives to flour have been around for more than a decade, but Filipinos have yet to develop a taste for products that make use of wheat substitutes. Policymakers should now put in place the necessary measures that would promote the use of wheat substitutes. The crisis in Eastern Europe is also underscoring the importance of hiking spending for research and development to create food items that will not rely so much on imported raw materials.

Until the guns fall silent in Ukraine, food-importing countries like the Philippines would have to pay more for commodities, such as wheat, corn and fuel. And higher food prices would hurt the poor the most, as they spend a bigger part of their income for fuel and food, according to the International Monetary Fund.


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