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The future importance of lesser-known grains to global milling

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2017

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by Clifford Spencer, Goodwill Ambassador of the African Union, Chairman, Milling4Life and Aquaculture without Frontiers - as presented at GRAPAS & Global Milling conference at the very first edition of FVG Select, Cologne, Germany 13-14 June, 2017. he milling industry has been innovating and moving forward for decades in terms of technology and efficiency as the sector continually strives to advance. With many developing countries coming to the forefront in terms of future food demand, and also new factors such as tackling the vagaries of climate change increasingly becoming the focus of future economic planning, there are these new major challenges to be met. The milling industries focus will increasingly move from temperate zones to tropical and from developed countries to developing ones. There is in particular an area not directly under the milling industry’s control that needs deep industry involvement and rigorous future demands – that is in the area of agricultural policy and in particular feedstock supply. In this I mean not just in the matters of quality, quantity, cost and availability of feedstock grains (which is always being continually improved by the industry and its suppliers) but the variety in crop grains and their intrinsic qualities on offer to the miller. For years there has been a trend in the agricultural industry for increasing the scale of production and with this has come a drastic reduction in the number of crops receiving investment in plant breeding and agronomy including nutrition and protection from weeds, pests and diseases. However since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces to use genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. The extension of industrial patenting, and other intellectual property systems, to living organisms has led to the widespread cultivation and rearing of fewer varieties. This positively results in a more uniform, less diverse, but more competitive global market but now increasingly with some serious disadvantages emerging from this trend. By way of example just 50 years ago there were 20 different kinds of grains in serious global production. Now there are really just three principle food grains being maize, rice and wheat in meaningful global production. Only one of these crops being maize is suitable for tropical production. Furthermore, currently more than half of the world’s food energy comes from a limited number of varieties of these three “mega-crops”. This in historical terms is an incredibly fast development trend and one, which needs rapidly addressing

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in order to add more variation in the range of food grains we consume. If not, our food will all be the poorer for it and for a number of very important different reasons, both environmental and nutritional. I am making these comments not just as a consumer looking for the highest quality nutrition to energise me and protect me and my family’s health, but equally as a long term experienced farmer that has produced a large number of crops in different countries and to the highest quality standard. Indeed throughout my farming career I witnessed modern agriculture driven by agribusiness increasingly concentrate on a small number of crops and varieties designed for intensive farming. This has dramatically reduced the diversity of crop plants developed and therefore suitable and available for use but also dominated the funding of the research and development of these mega crops, which has effectively narrowed to that, needed for the full development of just these three primary grains. These trends, and the increasing industrialisation of agriculture, are key factors in this trend, which is best described as the “genetic erosion” of our plant based sources of food. Not only has this trend been taken too far but also it is now pushing developing country agriculture thoroughly in the wrong direction. This is an important consideration that the milling industry needs to carefully evaluate for its long-term business health in these developing countries and markets. In terms of farming fundamentals, there is a basic requirement in terms of producing the highest quality crops related to whether the crop is a so-called C3 or C4 crop. Wheat, soya, barley and rye for instance are C3 crops and as such do not have the outright yield and quality potential in tropical climes as do C4 grain crops like Maize, Sorghum, Millet, Teff and Fonio. To explain the basic difference, C4 plants are more efficient in photosynthesis than C3 plants in high intensity sunlight. C4 plants are able to more efficiently fix carbon in drought, high temperatures, and with limitations of nitrogen. As such C4 plants are generally native to hot, moist or arid non-saline habitats as experienced in the tropics. The indigenous crops to these regions that are C4 crops are currently produced without the benefit of the investment in plant breeding and agronomy currently enjoyed by C3 crops and thus the underutilised and underdeveloped C4 crops have enormous untapped potential. Much work is now taking place in this area by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and in particular in Sorghum by the International Crop Research

AUG 2017 - Milling and Grain magazine