A new publication by the Board on Science and Technology for
International Development (BOSTID), at the National Research Council,
may be of interest to many of you working on agricultural research
and development themes in Africa. This publication, "Lost Crops of
Africa. Vol. 1. Grains," is the first in a series that reviewes the
potenial of Africa's indigenous food crops to contribute to increased
food security within the region.
Date: March 4, 1996
Contacts: Craig Hicks, Media Relations Officer
Mark Parsons, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <email@example.com>
NATIVE GRAINS COULD HELP SOLVE AFRICA'S FOOD CRISIS
Scenes of malnutrition and starvation regularly draw the world's
attention to Africa's food production crisis. Some observers question
whether the continent ever will be able to feed its growing population.
Yet there is an overlooked food resource in sub-Saharan Africa that has
vast potential: native food plants.
Africa has more than 2,000 grains, roots, fruits, and other food
plants. These have been feeding people for thousands of years, but most
of these species are given little or no attention today. A new report
from the National Research Council describes steps for increasing the use
of African grains. The first in a series, this report dispels myths --
often based on colonial bias -- about their nutritional value, flavor, and
These indigenous grains, although known to many Africans, are
overlooked -- or "lost" -- in the fight against hunger. Some such as
fonio and tef are used only in limited areas, while others such as sorghum
and pearl millet are widespread staples but have immense untapped
Because few of these plants have been studied, information about
them often is old or difficult to find. Despite the neglect, these native
plants are not unworthy, the report says. In the past they may have been
judged less useful than wheat, rice, or maize. But during the next
century -- when the human population is expected to double -- indigenous
African cereals such as those listed below seem likely to become crucial
for helping to feed not only Africa, but also the world.
African rice. Most people think of rice as an exclusively Asian
crop, but farmers have grown a native rice in parts of West Africa for at
least 1,500 years. The grain is much like common rice, although the husk
around it is usually red. This crop comes in a wealth of different types
that are planted, prepared, and eaten in different ways. Some varieties
mature very quickly and will succeed in seasons and situations where other
Finger millet. In parts of East and Central Africa, millions of
people have lived off this plant for centuries. One of the most
nutritious of the major cereals, it is rich in methionine, an amino acid
critically lacking in the diets of hundreds of millions of the world's
poor. The plant yields satisfactorily on marginal lands, and its tasty
grain is remarkable for its long storage life. The fact that some
Africans thrive on just one meal a day is attributed to the nutritive
value and "filling" nature of this grain.
Fonio. This indigenous West African plant is grown mainly on small
farms for home use in porridge, soups, or couscous. It is probably the
world's fastest maturing cereal and is particularly important as a safety
net when other foods are in short supply or market prices are too high for
poor people to afford.
Pearl millet. Some 4,000 years ago, pearl millet was domesticated
from a wild grass of the southern Sahara. Today it is the world's
sixth-largest cereal crop, but it has even greater potential than most
people imagine. Of the major cereals, pearl millet is the most tolerant
of heat and drought; it has the power to yield reliably in regions too
arid and too hot to consistently support good yields of other major
grains, which also happen to be the regions that will most desperately
need help in the decades ahead. A number of pioneering researchers see it
as a valuable grain for the United States as well, where it has given
excellent results in trials from Georgia to Nebraska.
Sorghum. Globally, sorghum is the dietary staple of more than 500
million people in more than 30 countries. Only rice, wheat, maize, and
potatoes surpass it in the quantity eaten. However, it still is a
relatively undeveloped crop. Sorghum thrives on many marginal sites where
other cereals fail, and is perhaps the world's most versatile food crop.
Some types of its grains are boiled like rice, cracked like oats for
porridge, "malted" like barley for beer, baked like wheat into flat
breads, or popped like popcorn for snacks. The plant has many uses beyond
food as well. The stems of certain types yield large amounts of sugar, a
potential source of alcohol fuels.
Tef. The most esteemed grain in Ethiopia, this staple cereal is
ground into flour and made into pancake-like fermented bread, injera, that
forms the basic diet of millions. Many Ethiopians eat it several times a
day (when there is enough), particularly with spicy sauces, vegetables,
and stews. The grain is about 13 percent protein, well balanced in amino
acids, and rich in iron, but research has been scanty and intermittent.
In the past decade, however, commercial production has started in the
United States and South Africa, and an export trade in tef grain has
Africa now needs 14 million tons more grain each year than it is
producing, and this annual shortfall is projected to reach 50 million tons
by 2000. Improving grains for Africa should be a great international
agricultural endeavor, the report says. While maize, rice, and wheat have
much to offer, further research is needed on native species that are
well-adapted to Africa's climate, resilient, and part of the African
Major funding for the study was provided by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development, with
additional support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other private
organizations. The National Research Council is the operating arm of the
National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It
provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a
A companion volume, planned for publication in 1997, will detail the
promise of Africa's cultivated native fruits, including baobab, butter
fruit, horned melon, marula, and watermelon.
Lost Crops of Africa: Grains is available from the National Academy
Press for $24.95 plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and
$.50 for each additional copy; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.
Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information
(contacts listed above). A committee roster follows.
# # #
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Office of International Affairs
Board on Science and Technology for International Development
Panel on Lost Crops of Africa
Norman E. Borlaug, Ph.D.* (chair)
Office of the Director-General
Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Ma!z y Trigo
John Axtell, Ph.D.*
Lynn Distinguished Professor of Agronomy
Department of Agronomy
West Lafayette, Ind.
Glenn W. Burton, Ph.D.*
Research Geneticist and Leader
Georgia Coastal Plain Experiment Station
Agricultural Research Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Jack R. Harlan, Ph.D.*
Professor Emeritus of Agronomy (retired)
Department of Agronomy
University of Illinois
Kenneth O. Rachie, Ph.D.
Senior Agriculturalist (retired)
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
Noel D. Vietmeyer, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer
* Member, National Academy of Sciences
********************************* Dr. Brent M. Simpson Institute of Social Studies PO Box 29776 2502LT The Hague, The Netherlands
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