A millet is a millet is a millet. Not

It’s been all over the news1 that a new hybrid millet from China is going to solve Africa’s food problems. Even our friends at CIAT think so. Nowhere does it say in the endlessly reproduced press release, however, what kind of millet we are talking about. Pearl? Broomcorn? Finger? Foxtail? Proso?2 What? Intensely annoying. Anyway, cut a long story short, it turns out to be foxtail millet, Setaria italica. We know because the “father of hybrid millet,” Zhao Zhihai, President of the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hebei visited ICRISAT recently, and the information people there wrote up the visit, and took a photo to immortalize it.

Chinese 'millet' researchers Zhao Zhihai, Zhang Jinjing and Tian Jiani, with ICRISAT staff CLL Gowda and HD Upadhyaya during a recent visit to ICRISAT HQ.

But, as far as I know, foxtail millet is not much grown in Africa, so this statement in the press release is dubious to say the least:

“Millet is staple food in many African countries. The success of the ZHM’s pilot plantation promises good prospects for its mass production in Africa,” said Zhang Zhongjun, assistant to the FAO representative to China.

Pearl millet and finger millet are indeed staple foods in many African countries, but not foxtail of that ilk. Which is not to say that it could not become a staple. After all, it tastes better than teff, which, however, one is bound to point out, is not often called a millet.

“We helped some local farmers to grow the hybrid millet and promised to buy their harvests. But they refused to sell after harvests as they said the new millet tastes much better than their traditional millet, called teff,” Liu told Xinhua.

And that, dear reader, is why we have Latin names.

  1. Relatively speaking. []
  2. Pop quiz. Which two of those are synonyms? []

2 Replies to “A millet is a millet is a millet. Not”

  1. I agree – Setaria italica is not common in the bits of Africa I know. I collected a few sample in the drier parts of Kenya but I never saw it on sale in markets there or anywhere in Ethiopia. Also ICRISAT seemed to abandon the `lesser’ millets years ago. There used to be lots of millets in the demonstration plots on the main drive – but these have long gone, even the far more important finger millet.
    The story of locals liking it better than teff is a bit odd, as teff is used mainly for fermented injera: I’ve never heard of foxtail millet being fermented. If it produces better injera than teff I want some.

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