Sustainable sorghum: USAID funds scientific project to develop hybrids

While industry use of sorghum remains nascent, scientists say there is huge potential given its gluten-free status

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has pledged $4.98m to a project working with new genomics tools to develop drought and heat-tolerant sorghum hybrids and promote sustainable farming in Africa.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid (ICRISAT) will oversee and coordinate the five-year project and the University of Georgia’s Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory will lead the team working on the initiative.

“The project offers a unique opportunity to fully exploit the potential of new genomic tools in improving efficiency and effectiveness of sorghum improvement programs,” said ICRISAT director general, Dr William D Dar.

The team will also investigate production systems that promote sustainable farming, particularly in terms of preservation or restoration of soil resources and water quality.

One of the world’s most resilient crops

“Sorghum is sometimes called ‘the camel of cereals’ because it is able to grow in arid climates prone to drought, which has made it essential in areas like the Sahel region of Africa where it is often too dry to grow other cereals barring peal millet,” ICRISAT said.

However, it added that although sorghum is the most drought-tolerant of the world’s major cereals, moisture stress remains one of the major constraints to its production.

“With a worldwide water crisis looming, a primary goal of the new project is to improve drought and heat tolerance, mitigating threats of drought to food security,” the association said.

The scientists involved also plan to develop perennial varieties of sorghum that are adapted to key agro-ecologies in sub-Subharan Africa.

“We have spent 20 years building genomic tools and fundamental knowledge of sorghum,” said project director from the University of Georgia (UGA) and regents professor Andrew Paterson. “This is an exciting opportunity to put all this research to work, improving human lives in some of the most impoverished parts of the world while also advancing progress toward a more bio-based economy through sustainable intensification of agricultural production.”

Brimming potential for industry

Researchers have hailed sorghum as the next big gluten-free grain. However, the crop is not widely used despite food-grade sorghum being cultivated globally.

Italian scientist Paola Pontieri who heads up extensive research on the crop, previously told that while the crop wasn’t used widely, interest in it was gaining traction. “In both the US and Argentina, and also recently in the Campania region of Italy, there is a great deal of interest in sorghum not just from the gluten-free industry, but by the general food and snack makers,” she said.

Earlier this year Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) developed two premium sorghum flours in a collaborative effort with US seed firm Nuseed Americas.

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