Sorghum is the world's fifth most important cereal, in terms of both production and area planted. Millet, a general category for several species of small-grained cereal crops, is the world's seventh most important cereal grain. Roughly 90 percent of the world's sorghum area and 95 percent of the world's millet area lie in the developing countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. These crops are primarily grown in agroecologies subject to low rainfall and drought. Most such areas are unsuitable for the production of other grains unless irrigation is available. Sorghum is widely grown both for food and as a feed grain, while millet is produced almost entirely for food.
The world sorghum economy can be broadly categorized under two production and utilization systems. Intensive, commercialized production, mainly for livestock feed, characterize the developed world and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Hybrid seed, fertilizer and improved water management technologies are used fairly widely, and yields average 3-5 t/ha. Such commercialized production systems cover less than 15 percent of the world's sorghum area, but produce over 40 percent of global output. Roughly 40 percent of this grain is traded on international stockfeed markets. In sharp contrast are the low-input, extensive production systems in most of the developing world (with some exceptions in Latin America and the Caribbean), where sorghum is grown mainly for food. While improved varieties are being adopted in such systems, particularly in Asia, management practices generally remain less intensive than in the commercialized systems. Fertilizer rates are low and the adoption of improved moisture conservation technologies is limited. As a result, average yields remain between 0.5 and 1.0 t/ha in many areas.
Millet production systems in Africa and Asia are generally characterized by extensive (rather than intensive) production practices and limited adoption of improved varieties. Yields still average only 0.3 to 1.0 t/ha. While hybrids are being adopted in parts of Asia, most of the world's millet area remains under traditional varieties. Few farmers apply fertilizer or use improved moisture conservation practices.
Sorghum and millet are crucial to the world food economy because they contribute to household food security in many of the world's poorest, most food-insecure regions. In the main production regions in Africa and Asia, more than 70 percent of the sorghum crop and over 95 percent of the millet crop are consumed as food. A large proportion of farm households aim simply to produce enough grain to meet household requirements - and many often fail to meet even this limited goal. Only a small proportion of the harvest is traded, mostly on local food markets.
In Africa, the agroclimatic factors most responsible for food insecurity also constrain the adoption of improved technology. Farmers at the margins of subsistence find it risky to invest in new technology. A growing proportion of farmers are beginning to adopt new varieties because only a small investment is required to change seed. However, they are less willing to allocate scarce cash resources to purchase chemical fertilizer or manure. Allocations of capital and family labour required to improve water and nutrient availability to the crop are limited because of the perception of higher returns from alternative farm and non-farm enterprises. For example, investments in schooling compete directly with investments in the cropping system.
In recent years, sorghum and millet production in Africa has expanded mainly due to increases in cropped area. Yields have failed to increase or have even declined because production is being pushed into more marginal areas and poorer soils, even in areas that are already drought-prone. Nonetheless, farmers are expected to begin intensifying production practices as land constraints become binding and the costs of food production shortfalls mount.
Market infrastructure in Asia is relatively well developed, especially in areas with high population density. As a result, adoption of improved technology has been earlier and more widespread than in Africa, resulting in significant yield growth over the past three decades. Production systems in the drier and less populated regions are more similar to those in Africa, with unimproved production and management practices, low adoption of improved technology and food insecurity.
Overall, the area planted to sorghum and millet has been declining in Asia. Slow productivity growth and low producer prices have reduced the competitiveness of these cereals, resulting in crop substitution in many areas. In some cases, sorghum and millet have shifted into more marginal lands, where their adaptation to drier, less fertile conditions gives them a comparative advantage over other cereals.
Virtually all the sorghum traded on international markets is used for livestock feed. This is the basis for the more commercialized production systems of the developed world and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Global feed utilization of sorghum has declined during the last decade, mainly due to changes in agricultural support policies. However, the prospects for future demand growth for feed sorghum, particularly in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, are expected to strengthen the sorghum economy in these regions.
Small quantities of sorghum are used by commercial food industries in the production of flour, malt drinks and beer. There are good prospects for the expansion of this market if sorghum yields can rise fast enough to catch up with yields of competing cereals, and if marketing costs are kept low.
Millet is traded internationally in small quantities, for use as bird seed, mainly among developed countries. However, this is a thin market with limited prospects for expansion. Millet traded as food is largely confined to cross-border transactions. Future production growth in millet will be used mainly to offset localized food shortfalls.
Food security still represents the primary goal of efforts to improve the world sorghum and millet economies. For most farmers, increased production will translate directly into higher consumption and better nutrition.
As household consumption needs are met, a larger share of production may be traded on regional markets. Thus, higher production and productivity should also mean income growth - particularly important in the major production areas, which are farmed by some of the world's most impoverished populations.