The world sorghum economy consists of two distinct sectors - a traditional, subsistence, smallholder farming sector where most production is consumed directly as food (mainly in Africa and Asia), and a modern, mechanized, high-input, large-scale sector where output is used largely as animal feed (mainly in the developed countries and in Latin America). The future of the sorghum economy is linked with its contribution to food security in Africa, income growth and poverty alleviation in Asia and the efficient use of water in drought-prone regions in much of the developed world.
In large parts of Africa, sorghum remains critically important for rural food security. Most production is consumed by the households producing the crop, and only a small proportion of harvests enters the commercial market. Since many sorghum-producing areas still experience periodic food deficits, production must be increased in order to improve household food security. Sorghum area will continue to expand over the foreseeable future as rural populations expand and crop land is extended into drier and more fragile ecosystems. Average sorghum yields, which have been falling by 1.0 percent per annum since the early 1980s, will need to grow in order for food production to keep pace with population growth.
Improvement of sorghum productivity in Africa depends on the development and availability of new technologies and on institutional reforms needed to improve input flows to farmers and stimulate the sale of grain products. Technological change is already being led by the introduction of new varieties, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso. Breeding programmes have offered a range of new varieties that improve yields and provide greater flexibility in sowing dates. However, in most countries, seed production and distribution constraints restrict the access of farmers to these new varieties. Private sector seed companies have proven reluctant to market open-pollinated sorghum varieties, and public sector seed industries are generally deficient. The payoff to past investments in breeding depends on resolving these constraints.
The largest gains in sorghum productivity will need to be found in technologies that improve the plant's access to water and nutrients. Sorghum crops throughout Africa generally receive little or no fertilizer. Application of manure is restricted by limited supplies and the competition for this input among various crops. Farmers tend to judge technologies required for water conservation to be too labour demanding and uncertain in their payoff. Yet as the continent's land frontier dissolves and population densities rise, it will become even more critical for farmers to intensify production. However, this will happen only if farmers perceive that returns on investment in new technologies (e.g., to improve fertility and water conservation) are comparable with returns from other investments. Scientists and extension workers can encourage farmers to invest in new technology by offering them a wider range of options for soil and water management to fit variable investment strategies and risk preferences.
Continued investment in technologies to ensure stability of grain yield and quality will also be required in Asia. In particular, integrated pest and disease control strategies will be needed. Past investments on insect pest resistance are set to yield returns in the near future in the form of shoot fly and midge-resistant hybrids for parts of Asia; but resistant hybrids will probably need to be used in combination with management control options. Grain moulds will remain a problem that is unlikely to be solved through host-plant resistance in the foreseeable future; other control options must be developed.
Pest and disease pressures will need to be attacked through chemical, biological and management control. Striga losses appear to be increasing. While breeders are pursuing a solution through new resistant cultivars, more effective control will probably need to be obtained from management strategies. The most promising solution is fertility improvement, but this requires farmers to either invest in fertilizer or forego some sorghum by introducing a legume as a rotation crop. Researchers need to modify these solutions to make them less expensive. Similarly, further investment is required to develop integrated pest management strategies for major insect pests such as stem borer, midge and head bugs.
The prospects for greater sorghum trade are constrained by the variability of production levels and high costs of collection and transport from outlying production areas. Trade prospects over longer distances may best be developed in areas where productivity is higher and more consistent. In countries where sorghum is the dominant food crop, policies, compatible with the Uruguay Round commitments, remain necessary to reduce price fluctuations in the domestic market. In countries where sorghum is regionally important, policy support is needed to encourage sorghum flows from surplus to deficit areas. This may involve the strengthening of market information systems or the provision of investment incentives for rural grain traders. Such interventions would more than justify the investment required, because they are likely to significantly improve food security and offset drought relief costs in the future.
The prospects for expanding sorghum use as a feed grain depend largely on the location of the stockfeed industry relative to production areas, and the speed of its expansion. Once food demands are met, the prospects for growth in feed demand are high. Despite the large interest generated in the use of sorghum for processed foods and bakery products, industrial utilization remains limited. Small quantities of sorghum are used in the production of beer malt, starch and flour in several African countries, e.g., South Africa and Nigeria. However, food industries tend to be conservative in experimenting with alternative inputs, and the prospects for industrial use are sharply constrained in most countries by uncertain supplies and variable grain quality. Further, in some countries, regulations make it illegal for the food industry to use sorghum as a low-cost alternative to other cereals (e.g., in Mexico, it is illegal to use sorghum in tortilla manufacture in place of maize).
In Asia, sorghum remains important as a subsistence crop, though in an increasingly commercialized production system. The largest share of production is still consumed on the small-scale farms where it is harvested. However, growing proportions are also being sold on village and urban markets. The future of sorghum in Asia depends on its competitiveness with alternative cash crops. Once household food needs are met, land is being shifted to crops with more favourable market prospects. Recent trends in countries like India suggest that sorghum land is now being reallocated to the production of more remunerative crops, such as pulses and oilseeds. These other crops are often more remunerative because of policy changes that have successfully stimulated their production. As long as food production deficits remain limited, these trends are expected to continue.
In the more commercialized Asian production systems, the prospects for further improvements in sorghum productivity appear highly favourable. China, where sorghum yields now average over 4 t/ha, has led this change. In India, the region's largest producer, yields still average less than 1 t/ha. Growth is most likely to be obtained by accelerating the shift from open-pollinated varieties toward hybrids. In addition, farmers need to improve the availability and efficiency of soil nutrients through greater application of inorganic fertilizers. Efficiencies in fertilizer use can be obtained through better targeting of micronutrients.
The pursuit of these productivity gains is particularly important because they will translate directly into income gains for some of the poorest rural households on the continent. In effect, productivity growth in sorghum represents a self-targeting source of poverty alleviation.
Higher yields are likely to translate into improved competitiveness for sorghum on Asia's industrial markets. Depending on the price and quality of competing inputs, there are prospects for expanding sorghum's use as a source of starch, as an input to beer production and as a compositing agent in various types of bakery products. However, the greatest source of growth in utilization will probably be the stockfeed industry. As incomes rise throughout Asia, the demand for milk, meat and other animal products, and, therefore, for stockfeed, is rising sharply. In some of the fastest growing economies, this demand has been met by sorghum and maize grain imports. Domestic production could replace these imports. In major producers such as India, the stockfeed market offers the prospect of large growth in demand for both grain and fodder products.
In the major feed-producing countries, sorghum production appears increasingly variable as a result of agricultural policy interventions, the relative demand for stockfeed and the competitive market position of alternative stockfeeds such as maize. Several developing countries with rapidly growing feed sectors have experienced strong production growth, most of which has occurred in the modern, mechanized sector where yields usually exceed 3 t/ha. In developed countries, although yields continue to grow, area sown has been variable. The decline in sorghum area in the United States, the world's largest producer, could well be reversed as policy interventions favouring maize are terminated.
A key issue for the future is whether sorghum will remain competitive with maize in the feed grain market. This will depend primarily on the relative growth of productivity in the two crops. While maize breeders are working to develop more drought-tolerant varieties, the prospects for achieving the levels of tolerance inherent in sorghum are limited. Rising global water constraints and rising water costs appear likely to encourage the allocation of a growing share of feedcrop land to sorghum. This trend may be accelerated by improvements in the nutrient-use efficiency of the sorghum plant.
On balance, sorghum will remain a key food security crop in Africa for the foreseeable future. Productivity gains are essential to offset the prospects of continuing food production shortfalls in most semi-arid regions and the prospects of periodic famine in some. This in turn requires greater investment in technology development and dissemination. In Asia, sorghum will remain important for household food supplies, but may become increasingly used as stockfeed. Productivity gains will translate into income growth as farmers either shift land to more remunerative cash crops or target sorghum production for the commercial market. Since most sorghum is still grown by poorer small-scale farmers, investments in research and extension will contribute directly to poverty alleviation. And in most middle and higher-income countries, sorghum will remain important as a feed grain uniquely suited to commercial production in hot, dry and drought-prone regions.