Sharing the harvest

Dry bulk shipping has globalised wheat-rich diets and brought pizza, bagels and biscuits to the world

The US is the biggest exporter of wheat to Japan

Around this time of year – September to October – many countries and communities celebrate the harvest. In China, Taiwan and Vietnam the festival is one of the most important in the calendar and is often called the New Moon festival; in the Jewish lunisolar calendar the harvest is celebrated over eight days through the Feast of Booths; a UK modern tradition encourages celebration of the harvest with donations to food banks; and slightly earlier in the year (August-September) the people of Papua New Guinea celebrate bringing in the yams. 

In our globalised society we no longer have to limit our diets to the yields of our country’s domestic harvests, and whilst popular foods cannot be grown everywhere, they can certainly be enjoyed everywhere.

Whilst China is the biggest grower of wheat, most sources cite Russia as being the largest exporter and according to World’s Top Exporters, last year its crops accounted for 17.7% of total wheat exports by value. The USA, as the second biggest exporter, contributed 14.1%, according to the same source.

The International Chamber of Shipping says that around 320 million tonnes of grain are transported by ship every year, and a significant percentage of that figure will be wheat.

The main importing countries of wheat are Egypt accounting for 5.7%; Indonesia 5.5%; and Turkey, 4.9%. China takes the fourth spot with 4.8% of imports, as it tops up its home-grown crops and adds to its stockpiling programme.

Further down the list after Italy, Algeria and the Philippines is Japan as the eighth biggest importer accounting for 3.2% of global imports. Rice may be the island nation’s favourite crop but it has had a love affair with wheat since the early 1950s and according to World Grain it imported 5.8 million tonnes of the gluten-rich grain in the 2020-21 year.

Japan imports around 90% of its wheat with the remaining amount coming from small-scale domestic production totalling less than 900,000 tonnes a year. The Japanese government purchases all imported wheat, which is sold on to private mills. It puts tariffs on imported crops and subsidises domestic production.

Most of Japan’s wheat comes from three countries: Canada, Australia and the US – with the latter providing more than 50% of total Japanese imports. Canada exports around 31% and Australia,16%, according to GrainGrowers which represents the Australian grain industry.

Handling over 50% of US grain exports, the Port of South Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest grain handling port in the country.

“These exports in 2020 included 24.9 million short tons of Soybean, 21.4 million short tons of Maize, 2.1 million short tons of Animal feed, 1.5 million short tons of wheat, and over 407 thousand short tons of other grain such as milo (sorghum) and rice,” the port said in a statement.

South Louisiana is part of the New Orleans Port Region – a group of ports situated over 87 km along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to Myrtle Grove – that makes use of the river and its grain elevators to transport cargoes.

A US Department of Agriculture report states that the port region moved 405,757 tonnes (46%) of agricultural exports in 2015, 14% of which was shipped to Japan.

Another significant US Gulf coast port to handle significant volumes of grain is Corpus Christi. In 2017 wheat was listed as its eighth biggest outbound commodity with around 1.4 million tonnes shipped from the port.

On the other side of the Americas, Japan’s east coast port of Chiba handles around 20% of the country’s wheat imports, and further up the coast Kishiro is another important bulk port for the commodity.

Like all grains, wheat has seasonal trading periods and when ready to be shipped makes use of medium-sized general-purpose bulk carriers, such as Panamax, Supramax, and Handymax-class carriers, usually from the charter market. Vessels sailing from the US Gulf to Japan will likely make use of the Panama Canal, restricting vessel size.

MarineTraffic data reveals that from the beginning of May until the end of August this year 57 vessels of 65,000 dwt – smaller-sized Panamax – or less sailed between US Gulf of Mexico ports and Japan. 

This compares with 53 in the same period last year. As it can take over a month to travel between the two countries September’s figures were not included as these vessels may still have been in transit at time of writing.

US Gulf ports to Japan – vessels of 65,000 dwt or under

Month 2020 2021
May 21 16
June 8 17
July 10 14
August 14 10
September 9 Not available


The world’s appetite for wheat is not only driven by taste. The grain is high in nutrients and has been developed as high yielding and disease resistant.

A research paper published in 2018 said: “Wheat demand has doubled since the 1980s, with most of the demand coming from developing countries, which harvest 50 percent of global wheat production annually. Consequently, wheat is at the epicenter of global food security. Tremendous gains in wheat productivity occurred in the 1960s and ’70s as a direct result of the high-yielding, short-stature, disease-resistant and fertilizer-responsive wheat lines that were developed and distributed during the Green Revolution, led by Dr. Norman Borlaug that saved millions of people from starvation.”

Wheat is once again being considered as a main player in food security for the growing world population. The United Nations predicts that the world’s population “will increase by 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050”. 

With that in mind, Panamax, Supramax and Handysize bulk carriers will be kept busy in the years to come.

MarineTraffic Registration Banner