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Image: Sorghum United
Sorghum and millets are versatile, fast-growing cereal crops able to produce
reliable yields and high-quality nutrition amid variable climates and with low
As the climate changes and weather extremes become more frequent, developing
resilient food systems is crucial for ensuring food and nutrition security. Key
to this effort are climate-smart crops that can withstand weather variability
and still reliably produce nutritious foods. Sorghum and millets are
emerging as two essential grains for building robust and sustainable food
systems in the face of climate change.
Sorghum and millets such as pearl millet, finger millet and
have unique qualities that make them resilient in the face of weather extremes.
Both sorghum and millets are hardy, dryland cereals well-suited to arid and
semi-arid agroecosystems. They have an inherent tolerance to drought, heat and
waterlogging that makes them productive even in marginal environments with
minimal inputs. This adaptability will become increasingly vital as climate
change brings higher temperatures, altered rain patterns and more extreme
Where other grains struggle, sorghum and millets can better cope with climate
stresses. For instance, sorghum has a robust root system that allows it to
extract moisture from the soil at deeper levels. Millets have a short growing
period, enabling them to mature before the most intense heat and dry conditions.
Both grain types can go dormant during drought periods and resume growth and
development when moisture returns. These qualities allow sorghum and millets to
produce reasonable yields even in uncertain growing conditions, supporting
climate adaptation and resilience.
Beyond climate resilience, sorghum and millets offer superior nutritional
profiles compared to more widely consumed cereals such as rice and wheat.
Sorghum and the various millets are gluten-free, non-acid-forming grains high in
fiber, protein, B vitamins and important minerals such as iron, zinc and
magnesium. The health benefits stem largely from their phenolic compounds,
tannins, anthocyanins and other antioxidants not found in similar levels in
Sorghum has demonstrated benefits for gut health, cholesterol reduction, and
managing celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The antioxidants in
sorghum also show anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and immuno-modulatory
activities that prevent chronic diseases. Likewise, millets lower the risk of
diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gallstones, obesity and gastrointestinal
cancer. Finger millet, specifically, contains valuable amino acids for enhanced
muscle and hemoglobin synthesis.
The unique phytochemical and nutrient composition of sorghum and millets makes
them particularly useful for combatting malnutrition. As climate change impacts
exacerbate nutrition insecurity, nutrient-dense, climate-smart
will be essential. Diversifying our staple crops to include more sorghum and
millets addresses this need while aligning agricultural production with shifting
Expanding sorghum and millets production contributes to sustainable farming
systems and sound environmental practices. Both grain types have relatively low
input requirements compared to other cereals — needing less water, synthetic
fertilizers and pesticides to cultivate. The extensive root systems of sorghum
and millets increase the efficiency of water and soil nutrient uptake — reducing
leaching, erosion and natural resource degradation.
Sorghum and millets readily lend themselves to conservation agriculture
techniques such as reduced tillage, cover
and crop diversification that preserve soils and farm biodiversity while
lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Diversifying production with sorghum and
millets also avoids monocultures that increase climate risks and disrupt pest
and disease cycles. Intercropping or relay cropping sorghum and millets with
legumes, vegetables and other grains bolsters resilience through crop synergies
that stabilize yields across variable climate conditions.
Sorghum and millets align with ecologically sustainable approaches to
agriculture needed in a changing climate. Promoting these grains will ease
pressure on limited natural resources while enhancing environmental quality —
key for sustainable, long-term production of nutrient-rich foods.
Shifting production to climate-resilient, nutritious crops such as sorghum and
millets can deliver important economic and social benefits — especially for
vulnerable arid and semi-arid farming
Often referred to as “coarse grains,” sorghum and millets have received less
research and policy support compared to prominent cereals such as maize, rice
and wheat. However, evidence shows sorghum and millets can have higher net
economic returns per hectare while thriving in marginal production zones
ill-suited to other grains.
Millet’s demand is rising globally as interest grows in gluten-free,
nutrient-dense foods. Expanding markets for sorghum and millet food products and
value-added processing offer income-generating opportunities to smallholder
farmers while meeting evolving consumer preferences. This is activating value
chains in developing regions and bringing economic gains where they are most
Location-specific advantages and stable yields make sorghum and millets
attractive crops for rural communities, especially in arid areas. In many
regions, sorghum and millets are already important cultural crops — underscoring
their social significance — and returns on household production supplement
incomes while bolstering nutrition through direct consumption. Protecting these
traditional cereal crops preserves food biodiversity critical for local food
Strengthening climate resilience through grains such as sorghum and millets
protects rural livelihoods and avoids climate-related displacement of vulnerable
groups. Supporting expanded production with research investments, infrastructure
development, improved storage technologies and favorable trade policies will
accelerate resilience-building efforts centered on these climate-smart crops.
As the effects of climate change intensify, agriculture must shift to prioritize
resilience, sustainability and nutrition security. Sorghum and millets stand out
as uniquely adapted cereal crops able to produce reliable yields and
high-quality nutrition amid variable climates and with low environmental impact.
Boosting the cultivation of these grains will strengthen vulnerable food systems
against mounting climate risks while aligning production capacity with projected
conditions. Incentivizing farmers to integrate sorghum and millets into
diversified farming strategies through favorable policies and support services
is critical for meaningful adaptation.
With their climate-smart traits and nutritional benefits, sorghum and millets
can play a leading role in developing the resilient, sustainable food systems we
need in the face of climate change.
Published Dec 22, 2023 8am EST / 5am PST / 1pm GMT / 2pm CET
Nate Blum serves as the Chief Executive Officer of BlüMilo — a consultancy for sorghum- and millets-based businesses, and Sorghum United — an international NGO advancing education and markets development for sorghum and adjacent small grains. He is an expert on grain sorghum production and marketing, with a focus on value-added agriculture processing for sorghum-based products.