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Millet for our bread in 2050?

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 5 Nov 2012 15:07 GMT
Author: Jerome Bossuet
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By Jerome Bossuet

A new study by the CGIAR Consortium’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) estimates that the global production of wheat, rice and maize could decrease by 13 to 20 percent in the coming decades because of climate change.

Potato, a plant not really adapted to warm temperatures and the world’s fourth largest food crop, will also decline. This predicted production loss, due to warmer temperatures and a dryer climate, will be particularly harsh for smallholder agriculture in the South. 

Global agricultural production will have to battle against this loss, even as production needs to rise by an estimated 70 percent to feed the 9 billion people by 2050. To do that, CGIAR scientists suggest that farmers may have to cultivate crops that are more drought and heat tolerant, like millet, sorghum, barley, cassava, cowpea, chickpea and pigeon pea.

Until now, these crops have received much less attention from the agricultural and agribusiness sector, despite their hardiness and high nutritional value. Pulses and lentils, for instance, are sometimes called “poor people’s meat” because of their high protein content.

Pulses such as pigeon pea and chickpea also boost soil fertility as they capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and release it into the soil. This revives exhausted farmland, making such crops ideal for planting before other more nutrient-hungry crops. Diversifying crops could also help buffer farmers from pests and crop failure due to temperature fluctuations.

The study suggests that millions of smallholder farmers may need to shift to other more hardy crops because of higher temperatures caused by climate change. This will bring new challenges for global food security.

SHIFTING CHALLENGES

First of all, farmers will have to feel convinced of the need to grow different crops and believe in their benefits.   They need to see for themselves, to experiment and exchange experiences with other farmers, and learn new farming practices. But can we provide farmers in developing countries with efficient and appropriate extension services when infrastructure and local capacity is not there?

New information and communication technologies (ICT) could help reduce this knowledge gap. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics’ ICT Innovations for Agriculture effort, for instance, provides training via internet and mobile phone, adapted to smallholder farmers and practitioners, on the best farming practices for drought and heat tolerant crops such as millet and sorghum.

Farmers, and in particular women, become more resilient to drought by learning crop protection techniques, crop rotation and other soil and water conservation strategies to adapt to climate change.

One example includes women farmers in India’s Andhra Pradesh state, who were informed and supported on climate adaptation methods via virtual advisory services. They now cultivate nutritious finger millet – called ragi in India - instead of water-hungry rice to cope with scarcer rainfall.

However, the impact of ICT on poor farmers is still very limited and we need huge investment as well as innovative partnerships between the public and private sector, farmers, development organisations and NGOs, so that the poorest and most remote farmers can access the necessary knowledge to adapt to the reality of agriculture in the future.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) together with the Indian Institute of Technology (IITK) and partners has set up a mobile knowledge-sharing platform to link farmers and agriculture experts. The platform currently serves nearly 20,000 farmers in South India region through Krishi Vigan Kendras (Farmer Knowledge Centres). The farmers regularly receive useful and timely crop advice as voice messages over their mobile phones

A MATTER OF TASTE

Getting people to adopt climate-adapted crops, however, is as much a social and cultural challenge as a technical one. Local tastes have to be taken into account. Many Kenyans, for instance, love the taste of corn and would not want to replace corn with millet or sorghum to make ugali, a polenta-like staple. In the same way, could millet bread ever replace the French baguette even if millet is healthier (gluten-free), more nutritious (higher phosphorus and iron) and more drought tolerant than wheat? 

The importance of local tastes is a key factor in efforts to bring about crop switches. Even the hardiest grain will not be adopted by farmers if no one wants to eat it. Farmers and consumers need to be involved from the start in defining agricultural research priorities that shape tomorrow’s farming.

This is why ICRISAT and other CGIAR research institutes carry out food tastings of new varieties within farmer communities so that innovation is adapted to what the local people want and need.

That’s the kind of work recommended at the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD2), held last week in Uruguay, aimed at ensuring better agricultural innovations for the poor can sustainably reduce hunger in the years to come.

Jerome Bossuet is a communications specialist for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

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