Lost Crops of Africa. Volume 1: Grains, by the National Research Council, National Academy Press, 1996
Summary Scenes of starvation have drawn the world's attention to Africa's agricultural and environmental crisis. Some observers question whether this continent can ever hope to feed its growing population. Yet there is an overlooked food resource in sub-Saharan Africa that has vast potential: native food plants. When experts were asked to nominate African food plants for inclusion in a new book, a list of 30 species grew quickly to hundreds. All in all, Africa has more than 2,000 native grains and fruits--"lost" species due for rediscovery and exploitation. This volume focuses on native cereals, including * African rice, reserved until recently as a luxury food for religious rituals. * Finger millet, neglected internationally although it is a staple for millions. * Fonio (acha), probably the oldest African cereal and sometimes called "hungry rice." * Pearl millet, a widely used grain that still holds great untapped potential. * Sorghum, with prospects for making the twenty-first century the "century of sorghum." * Tef, in many ways ideal but only now enjoying budding commercial production. * Other cultivated and wild grains. This readable and engaging book dispels myths, often based on Western bias, about the nutritional value, flavor, and yield of these African grains. Designed as a tool for economic development, the volume is organized with increasing levels of detail to meet the needs of both lay and professional readers. The authors present the available information on where and how each grain is grown, harvested, and processed, and they list its benefits and limitations as a food source. The authors describe "next steps" for increasing the use of each grain, outline research needs, and address issues in building commercial production. Sidebars cover such interesting points as the potential use of gene mapping and other "high-tech" agricultural techniques on these grains. This fact-filled volume will be of great interest to agricultural experts, entrepreneurs, researchers, and individuals concerned about restoring food production, environmental health, and economic opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa.
I give this book 8 out of 10 acorns (but to someone in the tropics through to the warmer end of the temperate zone who is interested in crop breeding it's probably worth more than that).
There is a tendency in permaculture, which exists for good historical reasons but that does not reflect modern understandings of ecology or of ethical norms, to treat plants as essentially interchangeable species in a novel ecosystem. While Howard Odum's work on ecology was exemplary for its time, remains useful, and heavily influenced Mollison, that does not necessarily reflect modern understandings of a range of issues. This book examines, and this review explores, a number of species that could, in practical terms, be removed from their native habitat and introduced elsewhere. In some cases, that should not present a problem. In others it would, or at least might. I strongly implore readers not to attempt to circumvent phytosanitary, legal or ethical norms when attempting to source novel foods. They exist as an often inadequate means to reflect a care for the planet and its people, and ensure that “fair share” is not equated with biopiracy.
I became interested in this book as a result of a desire to identify promising crops to improve resilience in a permaculture/agroecology system, especially in the Mediterranean climate I now hope to migrate to. I'm also very much aware that Mother Nature is looking increasingly pissed off, and I want to find as many crops as possible that might be able to handle the malign conditions that would kill some of our weakened mainstream foodstuffs. I found a copy secondhand before finding it's available as a free download. I want to look at it from two perspectives. The first, and arguably more important, is its utility to readers in Africa. While I suspect that will be a relatively small proportion of such readers I think it's important to realise that food security in much of sub-Saharan Africa is often considerably poorer than it is elsewhere. I strongly commend this book to readers in sub-Saharan Africa. A number of species will be useful outside the Afrotropic, and some already are.
There is important work being done to create strains of existing crops that are either perennial or are resistant to heat or drought, as well as breeding in other desirable traits. Perennial wheat, we are assured, is on the way. There is another way to address this question, which is to find crops which may have been ignored, that are already perennial and resistant to heat and drought, and breed those for desired traits. This book mentions or discusses some crops that do fall into this category.
There is also the question of whether any of the crops described might be valuable outside Africa. There are two sides to this coin. Some of these crops might well enhance food security outside Africa. Equally, colonial powers beginning with European ones and later a number of others in the Global North have been exploiting and looting the continent for centuries. Africa is not inherently poor: it's been systematically robbed at gunpoint, and many of my ancestors and contemporaries have been directly involved in these activities.
One of these practices has involved the encouragement to grow (or compulsion, through Structural Adjustment Polices and so on) a limited number of monoculture crops controlled by a small number of agro-pesticide corporations as well as other commodity cash crops for export, while Africans go hungry. I'd be keen to see Africans utilise both these crops and those listed in this series (and others) for their own use. Equally, exports controlled by Africans at a community level bring in valuable foreign currency. “Trade not Aid” is a good slogan, provided it's not used as a cover for further exploitation: “free” market trade pretty much invariably favours the stronger partner, and Africa, as I've noted, has been comprehensively beaten up. While I can't make that right, I don't want to be complicit in making the problem worse and need to recognise and address my complicity in perpetuating it. To do otherwise would be incompatible with both my own moral standards and my understanding of people and planet care, not to mention fair sharing. This means that I think it's important to find the right balance – probably an African-led balance – between the broader utilisation of African crops outside Africa and avoiding the undermining of fair trade with Africa.
I want to flag up an important caveat. In general grasses are unlikely to jump the fence and become a problem as an invasive. That said, where they are likely to hybridise either with other crops or with wild relatives, the fact that they are wind pollinated means that their introduction should be avoided. This applies to African rice (closely related to the familiar Asian rice) and fonio (Digitaria exilis and D. iburua), plants related to crabgrass (D. sanguinalis and D. ischaemum: European plants introduced to North America and now invasive), but perhaps open to their own breeding programmes (an appendix contains important thoughts on the needs of farmers in terms of plant breeding). Introducing either plant to the wrong place would fall into the ecologically ****ing stupid category. This is particularly important given that plants introduced to areas outside their ecozone tend to be particularly prone to becoming invasive. This does not apply to all the plants mentioned here, but it does apply to some of them.
The book discusses six grain and pseudocereal species in depth and several more in two final chapters, both cultivated and wild, from that part of Africa south of the Sahara desert, or what I know as the Afrotropic ecozone, genetically distinct from plants to the north of this area. It's not necessarily fair to call them lost: all are well-known in Africa and most are grown outside it, often in large quantities. They are, however “lost” to modern research. The intention is to improve food security in Africa, where there is a massive shortfall in supply over need, but I'm also interested in the potential side-benefit of finding plants that might adapt well to growing elsewhere, especially given the disruptive effects of climate change. Humans have lived in Africa for tens of thousands of years, indeed we evolved there, and it seems plausible that many of the grains we are now familiar with were first domesticated there. More recent domestication efforts have seen the imposition of crops that are often only suited to African conditions through intensive care, suited only to mass monocropping, worsening the food security situation.
Many of these crops are misunderstood: they are often treated disparagingly, and have been since Victorian times (and this very term may tell you something about when some of these views seem to have been introduced). They are often seen as unworthy, poor-people's foods with inferior yields and low cost-effectiveness. All of these views are unfair and often mitigate against growing a crop that may be better adapted to the climate, improve food security and have superior flavour. Most people I know regard millet as birdseed: I like it, but it took one of my Indian friends to introduce me to it as a foodstuff (and millet was introduced to India from Africa).
African rice (Oryza glaberrima) is distinct from the Asian rice (O. sativa) most of us are familiar with. It's predominantly a wetland species, which probably arose in the Niger flood basin, but is now cultivated between the coast of Senegal southward to the Guinea coast and eastward as far as Lake Chad. There is a problem with shattering and with brittle grain, but there are many local cultivars (some strongly sensitive to photoperiod; others less so). While it has a place in Africa, the view of the authors is that it probably has a limited place outside – perhaps as a speciality crop. It might well provide useful genetic material to Asian rice, with which it should hybridise, but this is as likely to result in problems with accidental crossing. Nonetheless, it and its close relatives may provide useful genetic material. One wild relative (O. barthii) is resistant to Xanthomonas (a common bacterial blight) and another (O. longistaminata) is a perennial that produces substantial straw, but limited food: its tendency to hybridise may enable the breeding of a higher-yielding perennial rice, which would obviously be be of great benefit to food security and carbon management. This is sadly probably a job for people with adequate phytosanitary conditions, and is probably best addressed in Africa.
Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) is the one of the crops in this book I can claim to have eaten, but I've mostly seen it in birdseed mixes. Finger millet is rich in methionine, an amino acid often deficient in the diet in people living on foods like cassava (Manihot esculenta) and plantain (Musa × paradisiaca): the authors suggest this is why some of those badass guys in Uganda and southern Sudan develop such physiques on one meal a day. This alone should make it attractive to the hard-working permaculturalist. As mentioned, I like millet, although I first came to know it as a human food as ragi (thanks, Sunder!), after a point-and-show operation. The main problem is the small seed size, but the Indians have come up with a mini millet mill, which is probably suited for smallholder use (although I've been able to find very little out about it: it definitely exists, but I can't tell you much about it because I don't speak what I think is Tamil). Other decorticators were becoming available even ten years ago, and may now be on the market (similar equipment exists for small-scale processing of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) which might also work for millet), but finding one seems tricky. This plant seems suited for an only slightly modified form of a System of Rice Intensification, and is one of the crops in this book I'd be most excited about.
Fonio (Digitaria exilis and D. iburua) is one I was initially very interested in. I've never tried it, but know of a place I might be able to lay my hands on some to give it a try. I'd never even heard of it, to my shame, probably as a result of its devaluation by my arrogant, inbred, brick*-ignorant European colonial ancestors. It's the staple for millions of people, which makes it one of the few staple crops I could not recognise at a glance. There are two problems. As I mentioned, it's a relative of crabgrass, and might become a serious pest where crabgrass is either native or has been introduced. The authors strongly advise against moving it out of its native zones. Given that other Digitaria species are found across much of the world, I'm inclined to agree. It's also a nightmare to process: women are reputed to hate threshing the stuff. A breeding programme might increase seed sizes and total yields and reduce shattering, as well as making it easier to process (millions of tired African women will love you for it, at least if you release your breeder's rights). This is probably a job best undertaken in Africa: I agree with the authors that fonio should remain in Africa.
I've also eaten pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum (two “n's”, although looking at it you might be forgiven a misspelling)), although I was again first introduced to it as bajra (a Hindi word): it makes a superior chapati to more common wheat ones. In the Indian subcontinent it's grown from Pakistan to Tamil Nadu, and in Africa from Egypt to Botswana, although predominantly in a band just south of the Sahara. This tough plant, which uses the C4 photosynthetic pathway, presents a firm “up yours” to some of the problems with climate change, being much more resistant to heat and drought than most alternatives. This is a plant with much potential, although it needs breeding work. At a policy level the authors are concerned with encouraging greater production, but I think we have something to offer in breeding programmes. The open release of a high-yielding variety would present many farmers with a route out of poverty.
Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is a third plant I was introduced to by Indians, as jowar, and is a major crop in some areas: it's the main staple of a substantial minority of the world's population, but has received relatively little breeding attention. It uses the C4 pathway (and is thus photosynthetically efficient and resistant to heat and drought), is suited to both tropical and temperate zones, and can mature in as little as 75 days. Nearly a quarter of the book is dedicated to this plant. There are breeding opportunities with this plant, which should overcome some of its problems. Some are perennials, and produce massive root systems. I'm sticking sorghum down on my to-grow list. It probably would not do well here in Scotland, but some varieties show promise in the Mediterranean, where I might get two harvests a year out of it, provided I can dry the seed.
I've never tried tef (Eragrostis tef). In Ethiopa they make a sour flatbread called injera, which visually reminds me of a South Indian uttapam, although I've never tried injera and thus can't otherwise compare the two. Most opportunities seem to be in tropical countries elsewhere, but it's cold tolerant, and might well be successful even as far north as Canada, Scotland, China and even parts of Russia. Again, there is breeding work to be done (although there are reasons why this might be tricky), and the reintroduction to Ethiopia of an open-sourced cultivar would be of great benefit to many farmers: the authors describe such an effort by farmers in Idaho.
The penultimate chapter discusses several other grains, some of which I consider familiar, others less so. Guinea millet (Bracharia deflexa) falls into the latter category, while some of the less well-known forms of wheat (Triticum spp) (einkorn, spelt and emmer) fall into the former (I think spelt bread has much superior flavour to that made from modern wheat), and have important beneficial characteristics in terms of factors such as mulch production and pest and drought resistance.
I'm not sure how useful the final chapter on wild grains would be to me personally. For one thing, obtaining seed stock would probably be awkward and germination would be a chancy business. That said, with that overcome and a move to the Mediterranean accomplished there are several species very much open to domestication. Many of these have been consumed as wild grasses on the savannas just south of the Sahara. Some of them could be bred to provide foods and other services (some possess rhizomes that help to bind shifting soils) in the face of desertification: indeed many of the crops listed in this book were probably domesticated by Neolithic humans prior to period when the area we now know as the Sahara dried out. Again, there may be phytosanitary and other issues that would need to be addressed first.
Readers in Africa, and any other readers who might be able to obtain seed from some of these grasses, might well want to consider an active breeding programme from any of these species: it's a short chapter, but an interesting list. If anything I'd encourage it, with the caveats already noted. The ranges of these grasses are in rapid decline, and were ten years ago when this book was published, which suggests another reason for urgency. Such work might well turn out to be an important contributor to food security. Some species are famine foods: others are sold as high-status grains, suggesting superior flavour.
I think this is the book's main weakness. There is a long discussion on a few relatively well-known “orphan” crops, and then they skim over what might be the greatest treasure of all – a list of grains few of us have heard of in shrinking ranges that might yet turn out to feed millions of people in a warming world.
I think they deserve credit for avoiding falling into the GM trap, which would most likely weaken the position of small-scale African farmers and leave them even more beholden to vested interests, most of them from the US, which have continued to peddle intensive monocrops, often drenched in proprietary pesticides (many publications from the same institution focus on these crops). The subject is mentioned, but mostly in passing.
In an appendix the authors discuss small-scale options for crop drying and storage, as well as protection from granary insects, which would probably be as much use to a permaculturalist as a small farmer in Africa. They go on to discuss opportunities for breakthroughs in convenience foods and for child nutrition. Remember that research contacts and relevant institutions will have come and gone: a web search will provide more up-to-date information.
This volume was one of six that were originally planned by the US National Research Council as an attempt to address the deteriorating nutrition situation in Africa. Sadly, volumes 2 and 3 on cultivated and wild fruits ended up folded into a single volume, the planned 36 species reduced to 24, and volumes 4, 5 and 6 on vegetables, legumes, roots and tubers have been folded into a single volume on vegetables, with a tantalising mere 18 entries of the planned 50. The list in Appendix 1 might provide a good starting point for further investigation. Nevertheless, reviews of these two volumes are forthcoming.
I bought this book secondhand from a charity doing development and aid work in the Global South. If I can use it to improve my own food security and that of others I will consider it a couple of quid well spent.