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‘How traditional grains cultivation prevents global warming, degradation’

By Femi Ibirogba, Head, Agro-Economy
02 December 2021   |   4:05 am
Indigenous grains are called traditional grains. This food heritage has fed people for generations. They are also legacies of genetic wealth upon which sound food security and sustainable development could be built.

H. D. Ibrahim

Traditional or indigenous varieties of grains are capable of preventing excessive use of inorganic agrochemicals, reducing environmental degradation and lowering how farming activities contribute to global warming and climate change. Hence, Prof. Hussaini Ibrahim, Director-General of the Raw Material Research and Development Council (RMRDC), in this interview, says grain production must be pushed, embraced and industrialised for eco-friendly food sufficiency. Head, Agro-Economy, FEMI IBIROGBA, writes.

• Enhance food security, sustainable development

You have harped on traditional grains to minimize climate change. What are they?
Indigenous grains are called traditional grains. This food heritage has fed people for generations. They are also legacies of genetic wealth upon which sound food security and sustainable development could be built.

Centuries ago, rice was introduced from Asia, maize from the Americas and wheat by farmers in the temperate zones. Faced with the exotics, the continent tilted away from its own indigenous grains, and research and development on them dwindled. Today, despite the development of rice, maize and wheat, traditional grains still have inherent roles to play as contributors to food security and as sources of value-added products in various industries.

Which are these indigenous grains, specifically?
Nigeria has several local grains, and among them are sorghum, millets, tiger nuts and African legumes like cowpeas, bambara groundnut, sesame, finger millet, fonio, pearl millet, sorghum, tef, guinea millet, and several dozens of wild grains which are eaten from time to time. As a matter of fact, these grains are many and may be difficult to mention or describe at a go.

What are the utilisation potential of the grains?
Some of them are highly nutritious and also have very good industrial potential. Although most people may not know that sorghum is indigenous to Africa, it is one of the world’s most versatile food crops. Some varieties 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 also has many industrial applications. In Nigeria, it is malted instead of barley. The stems of certain types yield large amounts of sugar. As a result of the plant’s adaptability, it may eventually prove a better source of alcohol fuel than sugarcane or maize.

Also finger millet, Eleusine coracana is one of the most nutritious of the major grains. It is rich in methionine, an amino acid critically lacking in the diets of hundreds of millions of people in the world. Closely allied with this is Tef (Eragrostis tef) which is nutritious. The grain consists of about 13 per cent protein, well balanced in amino acids, and rich in iron. It is now commercially produced in the United States and South Africa, and it is now an export commodity. Also, fonio, Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua are some of the oldest African grains. The seeds are rich in methionine and cysteine; amino acids lacking in wheat, rice, maize, sorghum and barley.

What are the perceivable roles of these grains in modern agriculture?
In comparison with modern wheat, rice and maize, these grains retain much of the hardy, tolerant and self-reliant traits of their wild ancestors. Such resilient crops are becoming vital for extending grains production to marginal lands.

In this era of global warming, they are vital for keeping arable lands in production. The highly developed cereals like wheat, rice, maize and barley, among others, produce high yields but require intensive cultivation practices involving inorganic fertiliser and pesticides, leading to soil degradation and pollution.

But traditional grains offer outstanding promise. They are tools for building a new and stronger food-production framework. For instance, most people think of rice as an exclusively Asian crop. However, farmers have grown native rice, Oryza glaberrima in parts of West Africa for at least 1,500 years. The African rice comes in a wealth of different types that are planted, managed, prepared, and eaten in different ways. Some mature extremely quickly and fits into seasons and situations where other cereals fail.

Likewise, pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is the most tolerant of all grains of heat and drought. It performs well in regions too arid and too hot to consistently support good yields of other major grains. This makes it a potential tool for food security in arid areas, most especially at this time when climate change is becoming inescapable.

Also, the planting of sorghum is likely to surpass that of other major cereals with time for two major reasons. First, sorghum is among the most photo-synthetically efficient and quickest maturing food plants.

And second, it thrives on many marginal sites where other cereals fail. Closely allied with these are the wild grains which include drinn, golden millet, kram-kram, panic grasses, wild rices, jungle rice, wild tefs, and crowfoot grasses. Development of these grains will help to combat desertification, erosion, and other forms of land degradation in worst afflicted areas.

Why are these so important now in Nigeria?
Despite the efforts put into the development of the exotic grains, Nigeria still imports large quantities of grain. Nigeria still imports wheat to produce wheat flour, pasta and other products consumers require. The International Grains Council (IGC) puts Nigeria’s total grains production in 2018-19 at 19.1 million tonnes.

These are far below national demand. The IGC puts Nigeria’s rice imports at 3.0 million tonnes in 2019, up from 2.4 million the previous year.

Currently, food import bans in place in the country. USDA in 2019 reported that Nigeria’s animal feed sector remains the country’s leading grain user, and experts have projected that Nigeria’s poultry meat consumption will increase 10 times by 2040. The domestic poultry production is expected to increase by 8 billion eggs and 100 million kilogrammes of poultry meat yearly.

The demand for grain by this sector has been difficult to be met by local production. This continually heavy dependence on imports to sustain food production has become a major concern as experts are of the opinion that this may not be sustainable. As a result, experts are advocating development of traditional grains through efforts to complement the exotics for food security purposes.

What actions are you planning to increase the production of the grains?
RMRDC has intensified the development of the grains through collaborative efforts. In realisation of the roles of traditional grains in food security and as raw materials in the industry, RMRDC has been promoting the development, increased productivity and industrial use of some of the grains. Through its agricultural boosting programme, the council has been collaborating with the mandated national research institutes to promote the development of improved varieties of sorghum, tiger nuts, cowpeas groundnuts and sesame seeds, which we normally distribute to the various commodity associations throughout the country.

Likewise, RMRDC has promoted research into the utilisation of sorghum for the production of glucose syrup and ethanol. Today, through assiduous efforts of the council, tiger nut oil is now locally produced and used in various industries, most especially, the toiletries and cosmetic industries.

To expand the frontiers of knowledge, RMRDC has initiated international collaboration with research institutes outside the country to boost the development and utilisation of the grains. It established research collaborative programme with the Modibo Adamawa University of Technology (MAUTECH) and Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) to initiate developmental research and economic cooperation programmes. These initiatives have led to development of implementable prorammes with clear objectives and goals with RISE, VINNOVA, and TETRA PAK, Sweden.

Swedish scientists have held series of meetings, including the academia and industrialists from RMRDC, MAUTECH, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan and SCL Abuja for collaborative networks between the two countries in the area of agro-food processing and research cooperation.

Through this programme, RMRDC will organize a workshop for a stronger link between Nigeria and Sweden towards teaming up with Swedish scientists together to assess prospects of the TG bio-economy and the key factors (trends, drivers) that are likely to shape its evolution has reached advanced stage. The programme will build on existing partnership, improve the indicators and metrics that are needed to monitor the development of the TG bio-economy for sustainable development by developing research ideas for projects to meet knowledge gaps, as well as initiate and foster contacts between scientists and industry along the interface of Sustainable Development goals (SDGs).

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