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Dryland Cereals
Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT
More than a billion of the Earth’s poorest people live in harsh dryland environments. Often the only crops that can ensure food security in such areas are hardy dryland cereals.

27.3 billion – Total annual value (US$) developing country dryland cereals production

650 million – Number of food-insecure people living in dryland areas

48% – Projected surge in demand for sorghum by 2020

39% – Predicted growth in demand for pearl millet by 2020


Cereal demand is forecast to increase 40% by 2020, driven by population growth, the need for more livestock feed and fodder, the impact of climate change, and increasing urbanization. ICRISAT works on four dryland cereal crops – sorghum, sweet sorghum, pearl millet, and the small millets (primarily finger millet). All are grown in areas characterized by high temperatures, low and unreliable rainfall, poor soil fertility, and limited markets.

Sorghum: This hardy cereal crop is grown on some 42 million hectares and is found in farmers' fields in 98 countries spread across Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Northern Africa is the primary center of genetic diversity, but experts believe that sorghum’s wild ancestors were first transported to India, domesticated there, and then brought back to Africa. 

Full profile on Sorghum.

Sweet sorghum: Sweet sorghum is an "opportunity crop" for resource-poor farmers. The plant looks much like grain sorghum, except that it is far taller. Long used for livestock fodder and silage, the stalks can be crushed to extract juice for ethanol production. Sweet sorghum grows far more quickly than grain sorghum, maize, or sugarcane but produces more biomass. 

Full profile on Sweet sorghum.

Pearl millet: Pearl millet production covers an estimated 31 million hectares worldwide and is grown in more than 30 countries. It is well adapted to areas afflicted by severe drought, poor soil fertility, and high temperatures. It also grows well in high salinity or low pH soils. Because it is tolerant to such challenging environmental conditions, it is often found in truly marginal areas where other cereal crops, such as maize or wheat, will not grow. 

Full profile on  Pearl millet.

Small millets: The small millets consist of a group of six distinct millet species, all with their own unique traits. The most significant is finger millet, but the other five are each in their own way important to the rural poor. They are also important to breeders as a source of traits that can improve the resiliency and nutritional value of more widely grown millets. The small millets are extraordinarily tolerant of drought and other abiotic stresses and could one day serve as a source of genetic traits to strengthen the resilience of other crops.

 Full profile on  Small millets.

The case for dryland cereals: Dryland cereal crops provide the food, feed and fodder essential to the health and prosperity of millions of farming families in dryland areas. With few other options, subsistence farmers and their families rely on hardy dryland cereals for the majority of their calories. These cereals include sorghum (grown on 33.6 million hectares), pearl millet (32.4 million hectares) and finger millet (0.9 million hectares).

Dryland cereal environments range from the dry savannas, where sorghum, barley and finger millet are found, to the desert margins, where pearl millet predominates. Food and feed resources often dwindle to critically low levels during the long dry seasons that characterize such areas.

Rural poverty: The annual value of dryland cereals, including barley, in Low Income Food Deficit Countries is estimated at US$ 27.3 billion, an amount that exceeds the value of maize (US$21 billion) and is roughly the same as wheat. Economists estimate that during the period 2000-2020, the demand for pearl millet and sorghum will grow 39% and 48%, respectively. Demand is being driven up for three primary reasons:

  • Population growth in dryland areas – the grain consumed by people accounts for about 40% of total crop farm-gate value;
  • Growing demand for dryland feed and fodder to service the rising demand for meat and dairy products; and
  • Mounting interest in the use of dryland crops to produce specialty products and for industrial purposes such as malting and convenience foods.

The CGIAR’s Dryland Cereals program, which includes barley, projects that research innovations will lead to an increase in production of at least 16% over ten years, generating US$2.7 billion in additional value and benefitting about 34 million people who live and work on 5.8 million smallholder farms.

Food security: More than 640 million of the poorest and most food-insecure people in the world live in areas where dryland cereals are grown. These poorest-of-the-poor often suffer from hunger and malnutrition, especially in the months leading up to harvest. Women and children suffer the most. Dryland cereals are vital to food security as they are the only crops hardy enough to produce reliable yields in the face drought, high temperatures, and in locations with poor soils. Improving their productivity and production increases food supplies while moderating food costs – directly increasing food security. Dryland cereal research emphasizes improving yield stability by breeding varieties that are not only able to cope with drought, high temperatures and poor soils, but also with biotic stresses such as insect pests and diseases.

Nutrition and health:  ​Sorghum and millets are often called nutri-cereals and are highly digestible, gluten free, have a low glycemic index and are high in antioxidants. Sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet represent three of the four most important sources of calories available to people living in dryland areas. They also provide the poor with a useful source of protein, fiber, calcium and certain B vitamins. Pearl millet and sorghum are both high in iron and zinc – important characteristics for women’s health – and several new varieties have been identified that stretch well beyond current levels (47 ppm to about 70 ppm). Both are also reasonably good sources of protein and fat, which aids in the absorption of fat-soluble micronutrients such as vitamin A.

Finger millet has high levels of iron and fiber and exceptionally high levels of calcium. It also has a high energy density rating, making it ideal for pregnant and nursing mothers, in addition to being a good weaning food.

While breeding for increased yield, researchers recognize the need to remain vigilant to at least maintain – and where possible to increase – the micronutrient content of dryland cereals and improve the nutritional value of stover and straw to improve the health and productivity of livestock.

Natural resources:  In the developing world, dryland cereals are cultivated almost entirely in rainfed environments and must perform reliably and flexibly under extreme conditions. For example, in areas that encompass dry to very dry agro-ecological zones, limited forest vegetation gives way to brush and grasslands that are more suitable for herding and grazing than for crowing crops. In such areas, livestock is often part of the agricultural mix, with strong interdependencies between crop and livestock production. In essence, farmers depend on livestock manure to improve soil fertility and livestock herders depend on crop straw and grain as feed sources for their animals. This interdependence reduces livelihood risks and raises incomes, both for farmers and pastoralists, and sustainability requires the continued vitality of both components. Dryland cereal research therefore works to increase both food and feed productivity, developing "dual-purpose" varieties that exhibit high straw digestibility and nutrient content, as well as micronutrient-dense grains for human consumption. 

Full profile on  Natural resources.

Combating land degradation:  Because drought limits productivity, the content of organic matter in dryland soils, even where animals are present, is often insufficient to support high-yield cereal production. This yield gap is expected to widen as the demand for meat and dairy products continues to grow. Increasingly, manure supplies are insufficient to raise soil organic matter to the extent required, and fallow periods that could help restore soil fertility are shortening or disappearing due to population pressure.

These trends towards soil impoverishment expose the topsoil to rain and wind erosion during the strong storms that frequently buffets these areas. To reduce the risk of land degradation, and also increase agricultural productivity, appropriate soil-water-nutrient management practices are needed. These include increased cultivation of nitrogen-fixing legumes – a strategy used by farmers in the pearl millet-cowpea systems of West Africa. Conservation agriculture (minimum tillage and related innovations) is also gaining momentum in the Sahel of West Africa and in shallow basins in Southern Africa.

In addition, judicious increases in the use of fertilizer are needed, as for example with the “micro-dosing”  system in which farmers apply small amount of fertilizers to individual plants. This approach is expanding in many locations, but careful attention is needed to address sustainability issues such as soil acidification (which is often a risk in soils with low organic matter content).

Production constraintsThe constraints affecting dryland cereal production depend largely on the cereal and the type of environment in which it is being grown. In general, however:

  • Production of dryland cereals is constrained by limited farmer access to seed of improved varieties, as well as knowledge about them. Inadequate seed systems and extension services slow the adoption of improved varieties and hybrids.
  • The degraded and low fertility soils often found in dryland environments, as well as drought, are major constraints, and research continues to focus on improving the resiliency of new varieties and hybrids to these harsh environmental realities.
  • Farmers need to learn about and adopt new management practices, without which improved varieties and hybrids usually have little or no advantage over traditional cultivars.
  • Grain quality, its storability, and fodder quality are important considerations to farmers, and can limit the adoption and production of new cultivars.
  • Finally, pests and diseases (as well as birds) can severely constrain dryland cereal production.

The implication of these and other, more specific, constraints is that a large pool of improved varieties and hybrids that can be adapted to specific environments is needed, from which farmers can choose the best cultivars for their circumstances.

Dryland cereals are well placed to benefit from new research techniques in genomics, phenomics and bioinformatics now being used by ICRISAT and its partners. The research being done by ICRISAT is conducted within the Institute’s Inclusive Market-Oriented Development framework (IMOD), in which commodities are viewed as a first step in a process that takes the poor from subsistence to market-driven prosperity.

Dryland cereals hold considerable potential for overcoming production limitations that are common across marginal environments. They offer famers important opportunities for increasing their incomes and improving their livelihoods.

Sorghum and millets can benefit from a precision-farming technique called microdosing, where small, affordable quantities of fertilizer are applied with the seed at planting time. 
Evaluating sorghum varieties and scoring them for traits helps farmers choose the best cultivars for their circumstances. 
Leftover stalks of sweet sorghum after juice extraction can be used as animal feed.