How Sorghum Sustains Continent as Useful Crop

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Americans have probably never heard of sorghum, unless they’re from the Old South where grannies still serve hot biscuits and syrup for breakfast. Sorghum molasses, once cheaper than sugar, is an old favorite in southern states and continues to be farmed there. Despite its low profile, sorghum is a pervasive and important crop with a myriad of uses.

Sorghum in North America

Sorghum is a tall cereal. The American varieties of dwarf sorghum—grain and sweet sorghums—are used to make feed for swine, cattle and poultry. The grain can also be used to make ethanol with a yield equal to corn. Unlike corn, sorghum grows well in warm, arid climates, and when farmed with modern, mechanized methods, its yield at harvest is not drastically reduced by draught conditions. Annually, an average of 15 million bushels of sorghum are harvested in Oklahoma alone. The United States is, in fact, the world’s largest market producer of sorghum, but national production accounts for less than twenty percent of the total sorghum grown worldwide. The vast majority is grown and harvested in Africa and Asia.

History of a Grain

The drought-resistant sorghum became a major US crop in the 1850s. It was probably introduced to North America sometime in the 1770s, after being imported from Africa. The plant most likely originated, in its domesticated form, in Egypt some 5,000 years ago. From there, it spread throughout Africa and into India, the Middle East, and parts of Europe.

Sorghum in the Global South

Sorghum has now become a staple crop for poor and food-challenged populations in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. In these places, it is grown as a subsistence crop and sometimes as a small production crop on farms. Currently, it is the second-most important crop in its continent of origin. Sorghum grain is used to make breads, porridge and gruel, and it can also be used to make malted beverages, popped grain (just like popcorn), and of course sweet syrup. The gluten-free grain and its derivatives are rich in iron, calcium, potassium, zinc and phosphorous, making it an ideal food for people without access to multivitamins. Overwhelmingly composed of starch, sorghum also provides lots of energy to the body per serving. Sorghum stalks are used as cooking fuel and can be used as hay for livestock. In Africa, the stalks of tall, traditional sorghums are used to make defensive walls around villages and homes. The sturdy stems are also woven into tools like baskets and fish traps. Their durability make sorghum stalks an ideal building material, especially when processed and treated. They are also notable for not accumulating static charge, which makes them ideally suited to use as biodegradable packing material for electronic equipment. Despite sorghum’s abundance, it goes under utilized for its more sophisticated applications, as it is primarily farmed for survival in the places where it is most plentiful. But as industry becomes increasingly globalized, and the globe becomes increasingly modernized, some of the poorest areas in the world stand poised to become the most successful exploiters of the resilient and multifariously useful sorghum.