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Sorghum’s Revival Goes Against The Grain

The world appears to be waking up to the potential of an ancient grain by the name of sorghum. Originally from the African continent, this gluten free grain, also known as guinea corn, jwari, jowar, kafir or milo, is increasing in global popularity due to its versatility, nutritional value, taste, environmental benefits, high-yield and food security potential. Traditionally an orphan crop, it is being actively considered as a lower-cost alternative to wheat, in the wake of global events.

The United States, for example— currently the second largest producer worldwide, after Nigeria— increased its sorghum acreage by 24% between 2020 and 2021. (US Department of Agriculture)

In Indonesia, S&P Global Commodity Insights predicts that annual cultivation will grow to 900,000 mega tons next year, from its current 15,000 mega tons, in response to aggressive government mandates to ramp up cultivation of the crop. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest importers of wheat— with annual imports of 10 million tons.

In June 2022, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia said, “I have given directives to the governors and heads of districts to really determine how much land can be used to plant sorghum, so that we do not depend on imported wheat and corn.”

In Kenya, sorghum— the country’s second most important cereal after maize— has played a central role in a government-driven flour blending initiative, launched in response to supply disruptions in wheat and maize as well as growing rates of malnutrition.

With a flavor that has been described as sweet, mild, nutty, and earthy, sorghum can be processed into cereals, porridge, flour, leavened and unleavened bread, cakes, fermented and un-fermented beverages, syrup and can be popped like popcorn.

In addition to being gluten free and celiac-safe, sorghum is an excellent substitute for wheat, rye and barley and is considered by many to be the most wheat-like gluten free flour.

It is high in fiber, and contains nutrients that are not found in typical carbohydrate sources, and is rich in vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron and zinc.

With more antioxidants than blueberries, sorghum may help to lower the risk of non-communicable diseases.

What’s more, this cereal grain is rich in phytochemicals that have been reported to have anti-inflammatory and glucose and cholesterol-lowering properties and is an excellent source of protein.

Bruce Hamaker, a food science professor at Purdue University, recently discovered a sorghum variety with protein that is more digestible than wheat and corn— a major discovery for the ancient grain.

In Kenya, Swiss non-governmental organization, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition as part of its Keeping Food Markets Working program, which helps to keep affordable, nutritious foods flowing to those who most need it, has provided financial and technical support to multiple social enterprises that are making ready-to-eat nutritious foods from sorghum.

With supply chain shortages and sorghum’s high nutritional content, the ancient grain has proven to be a useful food crop for fortification of traditional Kenyan foods that are typically made from other grain sources.

Jufra Food Processors in Tharaka Nithi county in Meru produces a maize-sorghum blended flour which is used for ugali porridge, and a finger millet-sorghum blended uji porridge mix.

Shalem Investments Ltd.’s ASILI PLUS junior porridge, a weaning formula, is fortified with sorghum as is Shalem’s ASILI PLUS Family breakfast porridge.

Both Jufra and Shalem seek to address malnutrition, diet-related non-communicable diseases and contribute to Kenya’s food security by providing consistent markets to farmers of sorghum and other crops.

Globally, a growing number of food brands have been incorporating the corn-shaped grain as an ingredient.

In the United States, for example, gluten-free brand Udi’s Hearty Sprouted Grains bread is made with millet and sorghum, and Smart flour foods uses sorghum for its pizza crusts, hoagie rolls, hamburger buns and pancake and waffle mixes. Sorghum has also been introduced into many popular brands such as Kellogg’s cereals, Kind bars, and Ronzoni pastas as an ancient grain.

In India, Urban Platter sells Salted Jowar (sorghum) Puffs which have no added sugar and contain 2.5% of the daily value of protein per serving, while the Serapheena brand sells mug cake mixes made of jowar (sorghum) and sweet potato in espresso coffee cake, cocoa heaven and vanilla flavors. Popped sorghum is also a popular snack food in India, prepared similarly to popcorn.

In China, sorghum is used in distilled beverages, in the production of liquors Maotai and kaoliang.

Consumers are catching on, as evidenced by an August 2022 survey by Ardent Mills, in which 64% of US consumers said they are familiar or very familiar with sorghum, but according to Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics for Ardent Mills, “Consumers probably lack a little bit of awareness and understanding of sorghum relative to how often they end up eating it.”

In short, there is significant opportunity for market growth.

With global production estimated at approximately 63.9 mega tons, significantly less than other grains such as corn, which recorded global production of 1,197 mega tons in 2021, only 20% of sorghum production has been for human consumption with the majority being allocated for other purposes, such as animal feed and biofuel. Globally, sorghum ranks fifth in total world production among cereals, behind wheat, corn, rice and barley.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, growth in popularity of the underutilized crop has historically been slow because it has been considered in many countries to be an inferior grain due to misconceptions about its flavor and nutritional content.

There is vast untapped agricultural and environmental potential for sorghum.

For one, sorghum has a competitive agricultural advantage to both wheat and maize. It can tolerate very warm, drought and harsher climactic conditions and is more resistant to mycotoxins and fungi while thriving and producing high yields on marginal lands where other crops cannot— in various types of soil, in high heat, with low humidity, and limited rainfall.

It is for this reason that Tim Lust, CEO of National Sorghum Producers has referred to sorghum as “The Resource Conserving Crop” in that it is that is both water smart and climate resilient, while others have referred to it as a “camel crop.”

Given that sorghum is self-fertile and does not require a large plot for pollination, it is the perfect crop for smallholder farmers.

“This type of crop is called Satyam Panta, [or crop of truth]… it grows because of the air and nothing else. Rain has never been a necessity for this crop,” says Chandramma, a farmer in Telangana, India of the benefits of the ancient grain.

Sorghum, with its dense and robust root structure that sequesters carbon and transfers it deep into soil, has environmental benefits from the perspective of climate change mitigation.

“Sorghum inherently boasts climate-smart attributes and a tremendous opportunity exists to implement further climate-smart production practices and activities on working lands to achieve substantial carbon capture, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to other associated environmental benefits,” says Dr. Nadia Shakoor, principal investigator and senior research scientist at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri.

In the United States, 75% of all sorghum is grown regeneratively, that is, on land that is not tilled thus promoting healthy soil and optimal carbon sequestration (National Sorghum Producers) and in California, researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla California are working to remove carbon from the atmosphere using sorghum.

Sempra Energy, a San Diego, California-based Fortune 500 company will be the lead sponsor of a five-year $2 million project called “Sequestering Carbon Through Climate Adapted Sorghum.”

Given its climate-smart potential, the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities is providing funding of up to $65 million for a five-year project lead by National Sorghum Producers that will work to quantify the climate impact potential of sorghum.

Growing investment signals a change in the tide for this source of food, animal feed and biofuel with delicious, versatile, resilient, nutritious and climate smart properties.

While sorghum has traditionally taken a back seat to other grains, despite its competitive advantage as a climate smart crop with high nutritional value, all signs point to a shift in this trajectory.

It’s about time to go against the grain.

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