Innovation of the Week: Improving Grains to Reduce Hunger

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By Mara Schechter

Eight hundred million people depend on sorghum and millet as their main food source. One way to help reduce hunger and poverty is to increase production of these high quality grains.


INTSORMIL is a research organization that develops new technologies to increase the productivity of sorghum, millet, finger millet, tef and fonio. (Photo credit: FAO)

That’s is the mission of the Sorghum, Millet and Other Grains Collaborative Research Support Program (INSTORMIL), which is one of nine United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported CRSP programs. Established in 1979, the International Sorghum and Millet Program was renamed—although it kept the well-known acronym—and moved to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2006.

INTSORMIL is a research organization that develops new technologies to increase the productivity of sorghum, millet, finger millet, tef and fonio. Through “international collaborative research,” or partnering with scientists in host countries, and educating graduate students and scientists, INTSORMIL aims to strengthen incomes, nutrition and food security.

The program has various projects in the United States and 17 other countries, which include breeding grains that are more resilient to pests and drought, researching and disseminating information about water and soil management and conservation, and expanding markets for grains. “Water in semiarid areas often comes in very intense rainfall and runs off rapidly…so water retention techniques are critical,” explains John Sanders, an agricultural economist at Purdue University who has a research contract with INTSORMIL.

INTSORMIL works with host countries’ agricultural research programs and national extension agencies to reduce hunger and poverty levels. In Mali, Senegal, and Niger, for example, INTSORMIL conducted on-farm demonstrations and introduced improved seed and practices, like tied ridges for water harvesting, to double sorghum yields. Used on one-hectare plots, the yields reached up to 2.5 tons of sorghum, compared to less than a ton before the techniques were used.

Another project in the same countries used three components to increase incomes for 400 sorghum producers by up to 445 percent. The farmers started using better water harvesting practices, waited to sell grains until later in the year when prices were higher, and started marketing to organizations within farmers’ associations to help get higher prices and reach more consumers.

“Farmers’ associations enable cutting out various levels of intermediaries…by doing what intermediaries do” such as buying, storing, and selling in bulk, explains Sanders. “To date we have been able to increase the prices received by the farmers associations by 20 to 50 percent but we should be able to do even better in the future.”

INTSORMIL’s marketing strategies, also include preventing and mitigating price collapses and adding value by “producing cleaner cereals” for food processors and “non-tannin sorghum,” which is safe to use in chicken feed, for poultry producers, says Sanders.

INTSORMIL’s research findings, which include pest-resistant strains and better storage techniques, also benefit the United States. Project Director John Yohe said, “the role INTSORMIL played in bringing germplasm back to the U.S. to develop greenbug-resistant hybrids resulted in higher yields and reduced pesticide costs.”

Yohe said he believes that, “What we do has made a significant contribution to food security in the developing world.” And apparently the program supports crops and farmers in the developed world, as well.

What are other technologies that can help to improve crop productivity and improve food security in both the developing and the developed world?

To read more about sorghum and other grains, see: Sorghum: Rise to Prominence, Innovation of the Week: Locally Produced Crops for Locally Consumed Products, Fonio: Africa’s Oldest Cereal Needs More Attention and Finger Millet: A Once and Future Staple.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

Mara Schechter is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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