realizing that they have in their hands a potential new food grain for the nation and for the world.

There are good reasons for that assumption. Despite the current widespread notion that pearl millet is a second-rate cereal, the plant actually has a high potential growth rate—higher even than sorghum. Like maize and sorghum, it has the super-efficient C4 photosynthesis. Some types mature very fast and can produce two or even three generations a year if conditions permit. And there are other advantages as well. Pearl millet is, for example, "a plant-breeder's dream" and can be developed quickly into numerous and widely different forms (see box, page 122). It is a cross-pollinating species on which several different breeding methods can be successfully employed. And, by a strange twist of genetic luck, it can also be easily inbred.

In terms of large-scale commercial production, therefore, this crop is poised for revolutionary advances. It stands at about the point maize did in the 1930s. Hybrids are known but are not in widespread use; yields are only a fraction of what they might be; and although the basic understanding of the crop's physiology and genetics is still rudimentary, it is beginning to become clear. Seizing the opportunity now could propel pearl millet (like maize since the 1930s) to far higher levels of productivity by using the best of modern techniques. Indeed, pearl millet might well result in a similar leap in food production in many new areas.1

Reasons for thinking this are not hard to find. The world's drylands are faced with an increasingly serious food crisis. Already this is becoming clear in the Middle East. For example, in 1989 Syria's parliamentary speaker announced at a meeting called to discuss Arab development and population problems that, unless the Arab world produces more food, one-third of its people will face starvation.2 In such places the world's most drought- and heat-tolerant cereal obviously has vital promise.

All in all, then, this plant's adaptability to both good and bad conditions makes it a potentially outstanding food crop for vast areas of a "greenhouse-afflicted" world where climates may change wildly from decade to decade or even from year to year, and where more and more people must obtain food from hot, dry soils.

The chances for boosting pearl millet's productivity and usefulness are good, but the improvements may not come rapidly. To make the


The increase in food supplies resulting from the creation of hybrid maize is considered to be a triumph second only to that of the Green Revolution (based on wheat and rice) in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.


"Danger is moving fast and if we do not . . . face it seriously and sincerely we will never be able to overcome the crisis," said Speaker Abdel-Qader Qaddoura, who noted that Arab food consumption was increasing by 7 percent per year, while production was increasing by only a little over 2 percent.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement