Why Sorghum
The ABS Project

Importance of sorghum with respect to Africa
Sorghum is Africa’s most widespread staple.  It is the second most important cereal (after maize) in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, sorghum represents a large portion of the total calorie intake in many countries. The precise reasons for sorghum’s environmental tolerance are not fully understood, and are undoubtedly multifactorial.  Five properties make sorghum the staple of choice in addressing nutritional challenges in Africa.

  1. Sorghum is a physiological marvel.  It can grow in both temperate and tropical zones.  It has one of the highest dry matter accumulation rates, is one of the quickest maturing food plants and has the highest production of food energy per unit of energy expended.
  2. Sorghum thrives on many marginal sites.  It withstands high rainfall and even waterlogging.  Research in Israel shows that sorghum has some tolerance to salt.  Most importantly, it can endure hot, dry and arid conditions. This is because it conserves moisture by leaf rolling and closing stomata.  Certain varieties of sorghum possess “stay green” genes that enable them to continue to photosynthesise, post-flowering during drought. 
  3. Sorghum is probably the world’s most versatile crop.  It can be prepared into a variety of foods.
  4. Sorghum can be grown in innumerable ways.  Most is produced under rain-fed conditions, some is irrigated, some is transplanted and it can be allowed to re-sprout from the roots.  It is ideal for subsistence and commercial farmers.
  5. Sorghum is relatively undeveloped.  It has a remarkable array of untapped variability in grain type, plant type, adaptability and productive capacity.  Indeed, sorghum probably has more undeveloped and underutilised genetic potential than any other major food crop. 
Importance of sorghum with respect to climate change

The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on climate change (IPCC) noted that over the next 100 years, the average temperature in Africa will rise by 3oC to 4oC.24  The effect of global warming on Africa will include changing rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, rising sea level on coastal areas and greater incidence of drought.  More than 250 million people in the Mediterranean, Sahel and southern African regions are at risk of reduced food security since over 95% of Africa’s agriculture is rain-fed.  Yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020 in some countries.36 Hence, sorghum will become the staple of choice as it can withstand drought and waterlogging.

Importance of sorghum with respect to urban areas
Many vulnerable people in urban areas purchase sorghum as a low-cost alternative to maize meal. Many city dwellers are accustomed to sorghum foods and would purchase them if they were made available.  This would boost the trade of country farmers as they would have a ready market for their crop, providing it has been processed.

Importance of sorghum with respect to rural areas
A survey in Botswana showed that people who were raised in rural areas had a higher preference for sorghum than those who grew up in urban areas.  This is explained by the fact that sorghum is a common food reserve for the rural population.38 A study in India showed that consumption of sorghum was highest in rural areas where the majority of the poor live and sorghum is a cheap source of energy.39
Sorghum continues to assume greater importance, especially for the food crisis affecting the African tropics and sub-tropics.  The potential for sorghum to be the driver of economic development in Africa is enormous.  Continuing focussed and applied research, such as the ABS project, is essential to unleash sorghum’s capacity to be the cornerstone of food security in Africa.

  8. Harlan JR and De Wet JMJ (1972).  A Simplified Classification of Cultivated Sorghum.  Crop Science.  Vol. 12.  Pp172-176
  10. Characterisation and Evaluation of Ten Sorghum Landraces.  Chapter 5. Field Crops Research.  University Of Pretoria
  14. Sorghum and Millets in Human Nutrition. FAO Corporate Document Repository.  Agriculture and Consumer Protection. 1995
  15. Climate Change and Africa (22-23 May 2007).  African Partnership Forum.  8th Meeting, Berlin, Germany
  20. Narciso Matos (13 December 2006).  Africa Science, In With The New, Out With The Old
  21. Hannah Reid (1 February 2004).  How Biodiversity and Climate Change Interact
  23. McCarthy James J (2001).  Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.  Contribution to Third Assessment Report.  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  24. The Regional Impacts of Climate Change. (2001) Chapter 2: Africa.  Working Group II.  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  27. Prom, Louis (2001).  Annual Report: Sorghum Fungal Pathogen Biology and Disease Resistance.  Crop Germplasm Research
  29. Biotechnology, Breeding and Seed Systems for African Crops.  An Activity of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Food Security Program
  31. Http://
  32. National Research Council (1996).  Lost Crops of Africa.  Volume 1: Grains.  Board on Science and Technology for International Development.  Office of International Affairs
  33. Jean du Plessis.  Sorghum Production.  Department of Agriculture.  South Africa
  35. The Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project Mid-Term Report, December 2007
  36. AMCEN Secretariat. Climate change in Africa – What is at stake? Excerpts from IPCC reports, the Convention and BAP
  37. Taylor JRN.  Overview: Importance of Sorghum in Africa.  Department of Food Science.  University of Pretoria.  South Africa
  38. Kebakile MM et al.  Consumer Attitudes to Sorghum Foods in Botswana.  National Food technology research Centre.  Kanye.  Botswana
  39. Parthasarathy Rao et al. 2006.  Diagnostics of Sorghum and Pearl Millet Grains-based Nutrition in India.  ICRISAT.  India.  SAT eJournal.  August 2006. Volume 2. Issue 1.
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