Greatest growth in global milling lies ahead

by Morton I. Sosland
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As strong as the temptation may be to relate forecasts of continued rapid growth in global population to likely expansion of basic food businesses like flour milling, a measure of caution needs to accompany such analysis. It is obvious that industries like wheat milling will not enjoy gains comparable to population growth in countries and regions where other food crops, especially rice or maize, dominate. Beyond those basic limits are the much larger impacts of infrastructure condition, investment capacity and government encouragement. It has been striking in watching these forces play out in recent years to perceive how neglectful governments are. Even nations striving to expand food production often overlook the importance of making food available in a form that is easily transported and readily converted into edible food.

No one involved with population and food issues denies that flour and bread are the perfect solution. That has been strikingly evident in the nations that made up the Former Soviet Union (FSU) where bread historically has been the main source of energy and nutrients. In the wake of the break-up of the FSU into independent nations, the introduction of modern flour milling has been a central theme in a nation like Kazakhstan. Rapid growth in milling not only has assured an adequate supply of food for a population that often suffered from hunger under the Communist regime, but made for growth to the point that Kazakhstan, almost miraculously, is now the world’s leading exporter of flour.

Growth in flour milling in recent years is not limited to nations suddenly freed from a failed system but also has occurred in developing nations where economic gains were matched by expansion in milling capacity. That model is mainly evident in central and southern Asia, where countries that once relied almost totally on local rice supplies have turned to emphasizing domestic wheat production as well as expanded wheat imports to provide the raw material for a rapidly growing milling industry. Indonesia stands as the stellar example of a nation that has assured its millions an adequate food supply made up of flour-based products.

The world’s two most populous nations, China and India, present fascinating insights into the way flour milling capacity relates to population gains. Mainly as the result of governmental participation in distribution of wheat, India has maintained its unique single-operator grinding units to make its special flour. China, which has more than 2,000 flour mills at the latest count, has spurred milling modernization to the point that it not only is the world’s largest producer of flour but also has become a major center of manufacturing milling equipment.

According to population experts and food analysts, the 21st century will be an unprecedented challenge. By the middle of this century, in 2050, the global population is forecast to exceed 9 billion, which would be a third more than at present. As amazing as those numbers may be, the truly astounding aspect is that almost all of the increase will occur in developing nations and at the same time, the share living in cities will climb to 70%, contrasted with the 49% urban share at present. That combination accounts for the likelihood that food needs of what is described as “this larger, more urban and richer population” will expand at a rate nearly double the population gain alone. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects global cereal grains needs in 2050 at 3 billion tonnes, against 2.1 billion currently. That makes no allowance for grain used to make biofuels.

The chances are good that flour milling will come near to matching this growth. If so, this century would witness the largest expansion of milling in history. While this will occur mainly in nations that now have a limited, if not a primitive industry, the impact of such growth will certainly be felt in every corner of milling, no matter how advanced.

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