Small grains deliver big returns for African farmers facing climate change

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Read full articvle by Busani Bafana@Alliance for Science   Photo Credit: Alliancefor Science

A ripe sorghum field in Zimbabwe. Photo: Busani Bafana
“Africa needs agricultural systems that draw on people’s knowledge and benefit our health, culture, social justice and the environment,” says Million Belay, a member of the Barilla Foundation Advisory Board and general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

Research shows that African countries have high levels of agricultural biodiversity and this should be leveraged by national governments to prioritize local crops, fruits and vegetables that are adapted to local conditions, can produce high yields and are diverse and nutritious in increasingly challenging conditions, Belay said.

Breeding for resilience
In Zimbabwe, scientists at the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) are also breeding adapted traditional grain crops, including pearl millet and sorghum that offer higher levels of nutrition while being able to cope with difficult growing conditions of high temperatures, low rainfall and drought.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body for assessing climate change science, has predicted that increases in global mean temperature of less than 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 3 degrees Celsius) above 1990 levels will produce beneficial impacts in some regions and harmful ones in others, with serious implications for agriculture and food security.

Traditional crops are sustainable, nutritious and have a low carbon footprint relative to maize arising from carbon dioxide, methane and nutritious oxide emitted to the atmosphere during production, explains Hapson Mushoriwa, the lead breeder for eastern and southern Africa at ICRISAT in Zimbabwe.

Recognizing the importance of indigenous hardy crops for the global food system, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution sponsored by the government of India to declare 2023 as the international year of millets.

According ICRISAT, millets — also called nutri-cereals — are an important staple cereal crop for millions of smallholder dryland farmers across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Millets also help tackle poor diet, environmental issues and rural poverty. They are climate-smart, making them a good risk management strategy for farmers.

Africa needs to promote nutri-cereals through supportive policies and investment to move traditional food into the mainstream diet, says, Simbarashe Sibanda, leader of the Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture Program at the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FARNPAN), a policy think tank based in Pretoria, South Africa.

Digging in to smart and forgotten foods
The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) are leading an Africa-wide consultation on food systems to develop a manifesto on orphan crops, which include millet, teff, groundnuts and yam. These are underused crops that are not widely traded and therefore considered minor when compared to wheat, maize and rice.

“The continent has a vast potential to feed itself and one of the ways is through forgotten foods,” Aggrey Agumya, director of research and Innovation at FARA, told a food systems webinar. “They are nutrient-dense, resilient, indigenous and well adapted but underutilized, which is an irony.”

Jacqueline Hughes, director general of ICRISAT, concurred that forgotten foods have never received global importance or been the focus of concerted efforts to improve productivity or quality. Nor have they been the focus of global value chains.

“These crops are adapted to very challenging environments, which resonates extremely well with our current climate challenges,” notes Hughes. She says that forgotten foods should be an integral part of Africa’s strategy to reduce dependence on food imports and to improve food and nutrition security.


Posted on

April 20, 2022

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