File photo: Farmers bring in the harvest with their combine harvesters on a wheat field in the southern Russian Stavropol region on July 9, 2014. AFP
From the temperate climates in Mesopotamia where it was first cultivated thousands of years ago, wheat has become an essential part of the diet of most of humanity.
"Wheat, everyone in the world eats it, but not everyone can grow it," French economist Bruno Parmentier, author of the book "Feeding Humanity", said last year.
That fact, along with swings in production levels due to natural or man-made factors, has sometimes put wheat at the centre of conflicts.
The International Grain Council (IGC), which brings together the major wheat producing and importing nations, expects global wheat production to reach 784 million tonnes in the 2023-2024 season -- a drop of 2.4 percent from the previous season.
Only a dozen countries produce enough wheat to export.
China is by far the largest producer, producing 138 million tonnes in 2022-2023. But it still imports over 10 million tonnes per year to feed its population of 1.4 billion and maintain a large reserve.
India is another large wheat producer. It had begun to export surplus production in recent years, but last year the government-imposed restrictions after drought.
Russia, the United States, Australia and France are the other major producers.
After a record harvest of 92 to 100 million tonnes in 2022-2023, depending on the sources, Russia is heading for its second-best harvest ever at around 90 million tonnes, according to Sebastien Poncelet, a specialist at Agritel.
It was the top exporter in 2022-2023 at 46 million tonnes according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and could account for a quarter of the global wheat trade this year.
Following Russia the major exporters are Canada, Australia and the United States -- whose exports are expected to fall under 20 million tonnes to their lowest level in half a century.
Next is France and Ukraine, which had been the third-largest exporter before the Russian offensive in Ukraine and is set to export 10 million tonnes according to the USDA.
According to Sebastien Abis, an associate researcher at the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations think tank, Turkey has been the biggest buyer of Russian wheat since 2018, followed by Egypt.
Those two countries accounted for 40 percent of Russian wheat exporters.
Iran and Syria are also big buyers of Russian wheat.
But Abis noted that Russian wheat is finding more and more buyers, including in western Europe, northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
Russian charm offensive in Africa
According to the African Institute for Security Studies, Africa's trade with Russia totalled $14 billion in 2020. That compared with $65 billion with the United States, $254 with China and $295 with the European Union.
The trade was dominated by energy and weapons, but agricultural goods is increasing its share, with wheat leading the way.
Wheat is not a staple in most of Africa, but it is an important source of calories in many countries, in particular in urban centres, where a bread shortage can quickly spark riots.
The volumes, while not enormous, are not insignificant.
At 3.9 million tonnes in 2022-2023, Russian wheat accounted for around 20 percent of wheat imported into sub-Saharan Africa, but that was a drop from 4.5 million tonnes in 2021-2022.
While Russia has promised to step up low-cost exports to Africa, this hasn't compensated for the drop in Ukrainian exports, which fell by more than half to 701,000 tonnes in 2022-2023, according to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute.