Back to sorghum: an African response to climate change?

Another in our series of occasional contributions from Jacob van Etten.

Last week I was at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) to talk about seed systems. To some degree or another, the people around the table were maize experts. We discussed climate change and this led to some reflections on the question:

If maize harvests are failing in Africa, why do most farmers not switch to sorghum?

When you ask the average agricultural scientist for solutions to climate change, the first idea he1 will come up with is to build drought tolerance and heat tolerance into major field crops. Most CGIAR centres and research programmes are structured around individual crops, so everyone has an incentive to stick to their own crop and stretch and bend it as much as possible to adapt to climate change. But what if simply switching from one crop to another does the trick?

Sorghum is a more drought-resistant crop than maize. Sorghum and maize are otherwise similar enough to make switching technologically fairly easy. Sorghum originated in Africa, unlike maize. Switching “back” to sorghum makes sense in many respects.

Several factors stand in the way of sorghum adoption in Africa, however. Maize seems to have become an acquired taste in many parts of the continent. Therefore, maize has a higher market demand than sorghum. By selling their maize surplus on the market, farmers can earn some money to pay school fees and the like. Sorghum is also more sensitive than maize to bird attacks. In a nutshell, maize lets African children be at school, sorghum pulls them from school to chase after the birds.

Even so, farmers are switching from maize to sorghum in Swaziland. These farmers are growing a bitter variety that birds don’t like. However, perhaps that makes it less marketable as grain for human consumption? The bitter taste of sorghum comes from tannins, which are have anti-oxidant properties. But although birds prefer sweet sorghum, they will still eat bitter sorghum if food is scarce. Also, a high tannin content decreases palatability. It seems that African farmers need alternative ways to deal with birds. Early varieties could perhaps help to avoid migratory birds, and synchrony in planting and maturing could spread the damage. Having the school holidays when sorghum is most vulnerable to bird attacks would be another option. … Any other ideas out there?

In Zambia, CARE is trying to help farmers grow more sorghum. One of the main challenges there is to develop a viable sorghum market. Economic incentives to continue growing maize may well be “climatologically perverse”. For instance, in Zambia, the major maize buyer is the government. Adapting to climate change may require African governments to buy more sorghum in order to develop viable sorghum markets. Liberalization, of course, has diminished the role of government cereal stocks in many African countries. Even so, there may still be a pro-maize bias in agricultural policy. Historically, sorghum hasn’t received the same level of state support as maize.

Creating more commercial demand for sorghum is key. Dietary preferences can change and economic incentives could help a great deal to achieve that. For instance, sorghum could become an obligatory ingredient in school feeding programmes. Sorghum is already increasingly used as a beer brewing ingredient by big brewers. Nigerian Guinness is made with sorghum and is not a bad beer at all.

“Fight climate change, drink more beer,” how does that sound?

  1. Most agricultural scientists are male. []

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