Africa's savannas are probably the oldest grasslands on earth and have changed little during the last 14 million years. Humans have lived there longer than anywhere else, perhaps more than 100,000 years. Grass seeds have sustained them throughout.
Indeed, gathering Africa's wild-cereal grains is probably the oldest tradition in organized food production to be found anywhere in the world. And the operation was not small. In fact, seeds of about 60 species of wild grasses are still gathered for food in Africa.1 In earlier eras, many were ranked as staples. At least 10 of the wild grasses were domesticated and eventually produced by farmers in their fields.
In modern times, however, this wealth of native grains has been neglected and sometimes even scorned. For this reason, we have called them Africa's "lost" grains.
Despite the neglect, these native grains are not unworthy. For the past, for the places they were grown and for the level of support they received, they may have been appropriately judged less useful than wheat, rice, or maize. But for the time that is fast coming upon us, Africa's sorghum, millets, native rice, and other indigenous cereals seem likely to become crucial for helping to keep the world fed.
The present century has seen near miraculous advances in the productivity of wheat, rice, and maize. Those top three cereals have buffered much of humanity from the disasters of overpopulation. However, the next century—when human population is expected to double—cannot be built on the expectation of redoubling the production of those three.
After the year 2000, it could well be advances in today's "second
tier" cereals that are the buffers against famine. It is they that have the greatest amount of untapped potential. Among them, Africa's native grains predominate. Sorghum and pearl millet, for instance, are the fifth and sixth most important cereals in the world, and finger millet is probably the eighth.2 Generally, they are crops of the poorest countries, which means that their improvement could directly benefit the people in greatest need.
By comparison with modern wheat, rice, and maize—respectively from the Middle East, Asia, and Central America—the grains of Africa still retain much of the hardy, tolerant self-reliance of their wild savanna ancestors. For the future, such resilient crops will be vital for extending cereal production onto the ever-more-marginal lands that will have to be pressed into service to feed the several billion new arrivals. And if global warming occurs, they could even become vital for keeping today's best arable lands in production.
Forged in the searing savannas and the Sahara, sorghum and pearl millet in particular have the merits to become crops for the shifting and uncertain conditions of an overpopulated "greenhouse age."
In the last few centuries in Africa, the local grains have been superseded by foreign cereals introduced and promoted by outsiders such as missionaries, colonial powers, or researchers. In recent decades, the production of native grains has plunged even further as millions of tons of imports—particularly wheat and rice—have been sold at subsidized prices.
Despite its long history, Africa's cereal production is now low. The Green Revolution that transformed the tropics and subtropics, from the Indian subcontinent to South America, passed Africa by. In fact, per-capita production of cereals has decreased nearly 20 percent (present annual output being only about 50 million tons or a mere 11
kg per person). It has been estimated that Africa now needs 14 million tons more grain each year than it is producing. With the population growing at 3 percent per year and agricultural production increasing by only 2 percent, that shortfall will reach 50 million tons by 2000.3
Obviously a crisis is impending in Africa's food supply. Improving cereals for Africa should be a great international agricultural endeavor. Maize, rice, and wheat have much to offer and deserve greatly increased support. A crucial objective, though, must be to extend cereal production into areas where environmental stresses and plant diseases currently limit their growth. For these now-marginal lands, Africa's own grains offer outstanding promise. They are tools for helping build a new and stronger food-production framework—one of inestimable value for the hungriest and most destitute nations.
This promise (and much more) is described in the body of this book. There, the following species are covered in detail.
Most people think of rice as an exclusively Asian crop, but farmers have grown a native rice (Oryza glaberrima) in parts of West Africa for at least 1,500 years. This crop comes in a wealth of different types that are planted, managed, prepared, and eaten in different ways. Some mature extremely quickly and will fit into seasons and situations where other cereals fail. The grain is much like common rice, although the husk around it is usually red. This plant not only has promise in its own right, its genes might also eventually benefit the production of common rice worldwide. (See chapter 1, page 17.)
In parts of East and Central Africa (not to mention India), millions of people have lived off finger millet (Eleusine coracana) 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 certain Africans thrive on just one meal a day is attributed to the nutritive value and ''filling" nature of this grain. (See chapter 2, page 39.)
An indigenous West African crop, fonio (comprising two species, Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua) is grown mainly on small farms for home consumption. It is probably the world's fastest maturing cereal and is particularly important as a safety net for producing when other foods are in short supply or market prices are too high for poor people to afford. But fonio is much more than just a fallback food; it is also a gourmet grain. People enjoy it as a porridge, in soups, or as couscous with fish or meat. The plant grows well on poor, sandy soils. It, too, is rich in the amino acid methionine. It also has a high level of cystine, a feature that is an even rarer find in a cereal. With its appealing taste and high nutritional value, this could become a widespread gourmet grain for savanna regions, perhaps throughout much of Africa or even much of the world. It might well have a big future as a cash crop and export commodity. (See chapter 3, page 59.)
Some 4,000 years ago, pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) 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. These happen to be the regions that will most desperately need help in the decades ahead.
Already, water is shaping up as the most limiting resource for numerous economies—even some of the most advanced. Agriculture is usually a country's biggest user of water. Thus, for nations that have never heard of it or that perhaps regard it with scorn, pearl millet might quickly rise to become a vital resource. (See chapters 4-6; pages 17, 93, and 111.)
Globally speaking, 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. For all that, however, it produces merely a fraction of what it could. Indeed, if the twentieth century has been the century of wheat, rice, and maize, the twenty-first could become the century of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor).
First, sorghum is among the most photosynthetically efficient and quickest maturing food plants. Second, it thrives on many marginal sites where other cereals fail. Third, sorghum 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. Perhaps the most intriguing is its use for fuel. The stems of certain types yield large amounts of sugar, almost like sugarcane. Thus, sorghum is a potential source of alcohol fuels for powering vehicles or cooking evening meals. Because of the plant's adaptability, it may eventually prove a better source of alcohol fuel than sugarcane or maize, which are the only ones now being used.
Finally, sorghum is a relatively undeveloped crop with a truly remarkable array of grain types, plant types, and adaptability. Most of its genetic wealth is so far untapped and even unsorted. Indeed, sorghum probably has more undeveloped genetic potential than any other major food crop in the world. (See chapters 7-11; pages 127, 145, 159, 177, and 195.)
This staple cereal (Eragrostis tef) is the most esteemed grain in Ethiopia. It 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.
Tef is nutritious; the grain is about 13 percent protein, well balanced in amino acids, and rich in iron. In many ways, it seems to have ideal qualities for a grain, yet research has been scanty and intermittent, and so far the crop is all but unknown beyond Ethiopia. In the last few years, however, commercial production has started in the United States and South Africa, and an export trade in tef grain has begun. These seem likely harbingers of a new, worldwide recognition of this crop. (See chapter 12, page 215.)
It is fair to ask why Africa's grains are not better known. At least in part, the reason can be attributed to several unjustified perceptions. Some of these misperceptions that are clouding the world's vision of Africa's native grains are discussed below.
Inferiority of Displaced Crops. Introduced crops have displaced several African ones over the past few centuries. For example, in several areas maize has replaced sorghum; in West Africa, Asian rice has replaced African rice. As a result, there is a strong inclination to consider the introduced crop superior and the native crop obsolete and unworthy of further development.
This is illogical, ill-conceived, and even dangerous. All the world's agriculture is dynamic and every crop gets displaced at certain times and certain places. In much of the eastern United States, for instance, wheat was long ago displaced by soybeans; in the Southeast, peanuts replaced rice; and in the Great Plains, wheat has supplanted maize. But no one in America considers wheat, maize, or rice to be inferior, obsolete, or unworthy.
Misclassification. Africa's cereals are inadvertently discriminated against through the way they are described. People everywhere classify sorghums and millets in a different light from wheat, rice, and maize. All the categories have pejorative connotations. For instance, these grains are typically referred to as:
Poor People's Plants. Many crops are scorned as fit only for consumption by the poor. It happens everywhere. Peanuts, potatoes, and other common crops once suffered from this same discrimination. In the United States the peanut was considered to be "merely slave food" until little more than a century ago, and in the 1600s the English refused to eat potatoes because they considered them to be "Irish food." Cultural bias against peasant crops is a tragedy; the plants poor people grow are usually robust,
productive, self-reliant, and useful—the very types needed to feed the hungriest mouths on the planet.
Inferior Yield. Low yield is perhaps the most frequent comment made about Africa's grains. Yet these grains are now mostly cultivated in marginal lands under less than optimal management and the yields therefore do not reflect their true potential.
Moreover, the use of yield figures can be totally misleading. Maize may be able to outyield finger millet, pearl millet, hungry rice, and tef, but only when soil fertility, moisture, and other conditions are good. Under poor conditions, African grains often outyield the best products of modern science.
Unworthy Foods. Millets are mainly used for making porridges, fermented products, couscous, and other foods that are alien and therefore somewhat suspect to non-Africans, especially Westerners. This has led outsiders, who often serve as "decision makers," to direct resources away from native grains.
Disparaging comments about African foods are not uncommon in the writings of travelers—especially in Victorian times. They are of course only personal—often highly prejudiced—opinions but, lingering in the literature, they have a pernicious influence that can last for decades or even centuries. Europeans treated the potato and tomato this way when they first arrived from the Americas. Myths about taste and safety helped block the adoption of both for two centuries.
Cost-Effectiveness. Most of Africa's grains are exclusively subsistence crops; the remainder are partially so. Farmers grow them for their own use rather than for market, and therefore there are no statistics on production or costs. A plant may be helping feed millions, but in the international figures on area sown, tonnage produced and exported, and prices paid it never shows. It is as if it doesn't exist.
This situation might be of little consequence were it not for the fact that economic-development funding these days is overwhelmingly judged on "cost-effectiveness." Thus, a crop with no baseline data is at a cruel disadvantage. Maize or wheat researchers can pull out impressive figures to justify the promise of their proposed studies. Finger millet or fonio researchers can only come up with guesses. To the hard-pressed, cost-conscious administrator—ever fearful of accusations that public funds may be misspent—the decision on which proposal to support is inevitably biased.
Other Cultivated Grains
Some of the cereals described previously are not, strictly speaking, "lost." But there are a number of African food grains that are indeed truly overlooked by modern science. (See chapter 13, page 237.)
Perhaps the world's least-known domesticated cereal, guinea millet (Brachiaria deflexa), is cultivated by farmers only in the Fouta Djallon Plateau, a remote region of Guinea. At present, almost nothing can be said about its potential, but it clearly deserves exploratory research and support.
This rare wheat (Triticum dicoccum) originated in the Near East, but it has a very ancient African heritage. It reached Ethiopia probably 5,000 years ago or more and, although it virtually disappeared elsewhere in the world, it comprises almost 7 percent of Ethiopia's entire wheat production. Moreover, far from abandoning it, Ethiopian farmers over the last 40 years have actually increased the percentage of emmer that they grow.
The plant is adapted to a wide range of environments and should be producible in many parts of the world. The fact that it is little changed from wheat eaten in the times of the Bible and the Koran could give it special consumer appeal. But it can stand on its own culinary merits. It is one of the sweetest and best-tasting cereals.
Although barley is also not native to Africa, it, too, has been used in Ethiopia for thousands of years. Indeed, Ethiopian barley has been isolated so long that it has been given its own botanical name, Hordeum irregulare, and has developed its own genetic "personality." This ancient barley is grown mainly in Ethiopia, where it ranks fourth among crops, both in production and area. Throughout most of the upper highlands it accounts for over 60 percent of the people's total plant food. Ethiopia is perhaps unmatched with respect to barley diversity. Indeed, some scientists think it is a source of new germplasm that could possibly boost barley growing in Africa and around the world.
In Ethiopia is found a native oats, Avena abyssinica. This species was domesticated in the distant past and is a largely nonshattering plant that retains its grain so people can harvest it. It has long been used in Ethiopia and is well adapted to the high elevations there. It is, however, unknown elsewhere.
As noted, people in Africa have been eating wild grains for perhaps 100,000 years. In modern times, however, various writers have discounted these grains as mere "scarcity foods." This is obviously wrong: wild grains were eagerly eaten even when pearl millet, for one, was abundant.
Many modern writers also imply that the wild cereals were gathered only on a small and localized scale. This, too, is apparently false. The harvest in the Sahara, for example, was large-scale, sophisticated, commercial, and much of it was export-oriented. The wild grains were a delicacy that even the wealthy considered a luxury. Examples of such untamed cereals are drinn, golden millet, kram-kram, panic grasses, wild rices, jungle rice, wild tefs, and crowfoot grasses.
Resurrecting the grain-gathering industry of the past might be a way to help combat desertification, erosion, and other forms of land degradation across the worst afflicted areas of the Sahel and its neighboring regions. A vast and vigorous grain-gathering enterprise might perhaps provide enough economic incentive to ensure that the grass cover is kept in place and that overgrazing is controlled. That would bring environmental stability to the world's most alarming case of desertification. (See chapter 14, page 251.)
These "lost" plants have much to offer, and not just to Africa. Indeed, they represent an exceptional cluster of cereal biodiversity with particular promise for solving some of the greatest food-production problems that will arise in the twenty-first century.
This potential for utility in the future is because Africa's native grains tend to tolerate extremes. They can thrive where introduced grains produce inconsistently. Some (tef, for instance) are adapted to cold; others (pearl millet, for example) to heat; at least one sorghum to waterlogging; and many to drought. Moreover, most can grow better than other cereals on relatively infertile soils. For thousands of years they have yielded grain even where land preparation was minimal and management poor. They combine well with other crops in mixed stands. Some types mature rapidly. They tend to be nutritious. And at least one is reputed to be better tasting than most of the world's well-known grains.