A Global Agricultural Research Partnership

The revival of traditional dry-land crops

kid in sorghum field

The drylands of Africa are among the poorest and most food-insecure areas in the world. Farmers in these areas struggle to survive using subsistence cultivation methods. Tragically, they are missing out on large potential productivity gains that are possible, given the soils, crops and climates of these areas.

Over the past years, the developing world has favoured three main crops: rice, wheat and corn. Market dynamics have “pushed” those crops also into more arid areas, where they require too much moisture to grow, give a lower yield, and are much more susceptible to droughts and other climatic changes.

It is even more unfortunate that – over time – the “new crops” also reduced the demand for the more “traditional” dryland crops like millets and sorghum. With a drop in demand, farmers stopped cultivating their traditional crops, even though they were much better suited to their arid environment. Over time, most of the value chain – from farmer to consumer – also disappeared.

We have come to a point where traditional dryland crops like millets and sorghum are only cultivated at a subsistence level: Farmers grow these crops only to feed their families, and not to sell.

A vicious cycle has fed on itself: with less production and less market demand, there was less justification for investment in dryland crops. Less resources were allocated for the research, development, support services and infrastructure needed to commercialize them, resulting in even further declines in market demand.

We will turn the tide around with ICRISAT’s HOPE project.

The consequences of the reduced economic competitiveness of dryland grains

  • Reduced food supplies that lead to widespread hunger and malnutrition affecting hundreds of millions of poor dryland inhabitants, who are unable to adequately feed their families from low-yield subsistence production;
  • Loss of economic opportunities that these people might otherwise have to alleviate their poverty if they could produce grain for sale. Currently, there is a reduced demand for these crops;
  • Increased dependence of growing urban areas in Africa on imported rather than locally-produced food grains, making these imports vulnerable to price variations beyond Africa’s control;
  • Losses of genetic diversity and scientific know-how, particularly knowledge about and ability to manipulate the stress tolerance genes of dryland crops that will be increasingly needed even to improve rice, wheat and corn (through wide gene transfers from sorghum and millets) so that those crops of cooler, wetter areas can be bred to tolerate the increasing heat and drought that is expected from global warming; and
  • A world that is becoming increasingly dependent on just a few cereal grains, increasing the basic risks to humanity’s food supply from unexpected disease strains increase. The rapid global spread of the wheat rust fungus strain Ug99 illustrates the danger.

Recent trends that favor the resurgence of dryland cereals

Overcoming Africa’s stagnant dryland food production trend requires the growth, expansion and diversification of markets for dryland crops, so that farmers will be rewarded for increasing their production and productivity. In recent years, new major trends show that an increasing demand for dryland cereals has begun to emerge, which, in turn, will provide a renewed opportunity for sorghum and millets in the marketplace. These are long-term trends based on fundamental increases in the underlying factors that drive demand:

Increasing global demand for livestock products (meat, milk) with growing global affluence. Dryland crop “residues” (stalks – also called ‘stover’ – and leaves) as well as grains are vital feedstocks for cattle, goats and chickens. The increasing demand for livestock products will overstretch corn supplies, and therefore accelerate demand from sorghum and millets as livestock feeds. This strong demand is increasing the market value of dryland crop residues. Further, sorghum grain is a proven high-quality feed for cattle and poultry. Pearl millet grain is also a valuable animal feed, comparable to corn for poultry but with a higher protein content and better-balanced amino acid profile — so less protein concentrate is required in a pearl millet-based feed ration.

Pearl millet grain is also highly valued as a human food – especially by those engaged in hard physical work – due to its high energy content and slower rate of digestion compared to ‘lighter’ cereals like rice and wheat. Its relatively slower digestion rate is also advantageous for diabetics. Also associated with growing affluence is an increasing ability of urban markets to afford value-added products. Demand for finger millet (for example, consumed as ‘Uji’, a type of porridge in Kenya ) far exceeds supply such that processors are forced to search for the cereal in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda . Finger millet has high levels of iron and fibre and exceptionally high levels of calcium, 10 to 40 times more than other cereals, and has relatively lower energy content, making it ideal for weaning children, pregnant and nursing mothers. It is being used in therapeutic feeding programs for diabetics and people who cannot tolerate gluten. The demand has stimulated increased investment by agro-processors supplying this and related products to supermarkets and other retail outlets.

Increasing fertilizer prices, arising from rising price trends for fossil fuels used in their manufacture. Fertilizer is usually manufactured in very high-technology facilities in developed countries, incurring a high import cost to developing countries. Farmers have little choice but to cut back on fertilizer purchases as prices climb. This is causing farmers to shift to the dryland cereals that can be produced more reliably with fewer fertilizer inputs than those needed fo rice, corn or wheat.

Human populations continue to increase at high rates in dryland areas, a natural driver of demand for locally-grown and available foods such as sorghum and millet. A related major trend is that, while the majority of poor are still located in rural areas, an increasing proportion of the population is flocking to urban areas and non-farm jobs, increasing the demand for foods supplied through commercial markets rather than subsistence production.

The expected increases in demand for biofuels is likely to divert grain crops like corn into the bioethanol market, increasing the need for locally-produced sorghum and millets to fill the gap in the human food chain in developing countries created by scarcity (and resultant high prices) of corn.

The main thrust of the ICRISAT-HOPE project is to provide poor dryland households with the technologies, linkages, and development impetus they need to harness the “pull” of these growing markets.

farmer-with-cropCapturing the growing market opportunity through integrated value chain improvement

Effectively translating the increasing demand for dryland grains into significant benefits for the poor will require significant efforts that target these people. The whole ‘value chain’, from input supplies through production to output markets, will need to be built, involving multiple actors such as input suppliers, producers, storage agencies, processors and marketing entities.

Numerous development efforts have highlighted the importance of addressing inter-dependencies within the value chain. For example, while many soil fertility, water, weed and pest management techniques have been developed for dryland cereal production systems, their adoption is limited without other segments of the value chain such as input supply channels and output markets.

Similarly, efforts by ICRISAT and partners over the past two decades to move improved varieties to the farm have encountered difficulties when trying to boost yields with improved varieties alone on the nutrient-depleted soils of dryland Africa. Improved varieties are more responsive than traditional varieties to increased inputs, but poor farmers find it difficult to afford fertilizer and consequently rarely use it on these crops. In contrast, fertilizer is readily available at subsidized prices across India, resulting in improved varieties that are widely adopted and dryland cereal yields that are approximately double those of Africa — proving that the potential of drylands is still waiting to be captured in Africa in particular.

Enabling change

To increase production, farmers must have access to productivity-boosting seeds, fertilizer, credit, and know-how — inputs that currently lie largely beyond their reach. Project activities will form linkages with suppliers of these inputs and strengthen their capacities, and also discover, develop and deliver improved technologies, particularly through plant breeding and crop production research, all of which will translate into higher yields, while also adding value to the harvested products.

Driving change

Once enabled, farmers must also be motivated to utilize these inputs to achieve benefits that will be meaningful to them. Reliable and remunerative markets create a profit incentive, a driving force that can motivate change. African farmers are highly responsive to market signals and rapidly change their farming systems when new opportunities emerge. By raising the technical efficiency of sorghum and millet farming and accessing more rewarding markets in ways that control risks, the project seeks to create motivating conditions that trigger the adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies and substantial increases in crop production and income.

Read more about the ICRISAT Hope project

One Response to The revival of traditional dry-land crops

  1. Rhoda Azikoyo Nungo says:

    I work for Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in western Kenya. I focus in Post harvest and Applied Human Nutrition. Post harvest handling and diversified utilization of Finger millet needs attention from the International research point of view. Innovative recipes building from traditional diets are very crucial for households to use this very healthy crop. There is urgent need for International partners to assist developing countries in this field.

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