Researchers develop disease-resistant climate-smart grains to help eradicate poverty in Africa

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Millet is a staple food crop in Africa, yet production is still below potential. Pic: ©GettyImages/Philippe Marion
Millet is a staple food crop in Africa, yet production is still below potential. Pic: ©GettyImages/Philippe Marion

Related tags Africa Poverty Food security millets Sorghum Climate change

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) says it foresees rolling roll out new varieties of drought- and disease-resistant grains to African farmers next year to increase food security in the region.

There are four million people with limited access to food in Chad, which ranks as second hungriest of the 119 countries assessed in the 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI).

Chad is also hotter and drier now than it was 40 years ago, resulting in reduced crop production. This has had the knock-on effect of food shortage and increased undernutrition, particularly amongst the poorer farmers.

Working to end poverty not alleviate it

To boost food security in African drylands like Chad, ICRISAT is working to develop climate-smart crops to help improve farmers’ productivity.

Pearl millet and sorghum are core crops in ICRISAT’s Inclusive Market-Oriented Development (IMOD) framework in the region, where the organization aims to end poverty instead of alleviate it.

Typically, crops like pearl millet and sorghum do not require as much water to grow as other crops and can grow under challenging conditions.

In Chad, farmers who planted the S35 variety of sorghum (also developed by ICRISAT) are decreasing resource inputs by 33% and increasing yields by 51%, compared to yields of other sorghum varieties.

Mainly consumed as a porridge or to make flatbreads, the grains are also rich in micronutrients such as calcium, zinc, iron and amino acids.

“The high levels of calcium, iron and amino acids in finger millet make it exceptionally nutritious. It is ideal for diabetic people, since it has high amounts of slowly digestible starch that contribute to a slow release of sugar into the bloodstream,”​ said Henry Ojulong, a cereals breeder at ICRISAT.

Disease-resistant finger millet

Now, ICRISAT has announced plans to distribute new varieties of finger millet that are even more disease-resistant.

Finger millet is a highly valued crop grown in 24 countries in Africa and Asia, yet production has remained below its expected potential.

The five-year Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) project involved research on finger millet’s wild relatives that have also developed tolerance to blast disease and striga, a parasitic weed.

Blast is considered one of the most destructive diseases of finger millet because of its aggressiveness. In East Africa, losses exceeding 80% have been reported in bad years.

Striga can lead to complete loss of crop and once it is in a farmer’s field, it is nearly impossible to eradicate.

“We plan to release farmer-preferred and superior varieties next year to help improve farmers’ productivity,”​ said Damaris Odeny, principal investigator of the CWR project.

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