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The Next Economy
These Underutilized Grains Hold the Key to Climate-Proofing Our Food System

Sorghum and millets are versatile, fast-growing cereal crops able to produce reliable yields and high-quality nutrition amid variable climates and with low environmental impact.

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.

The adaptability of sorghum and millets

Sorghum and millets such as pearl millet, finger millet and fonio 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 weather.

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.

Nutritional value

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 other grains.

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 crops will be essential. Diversifying our staple crops to include more sorghum and millets addresses this need while aligning agricultural production with shifting climatic conditions.

Sustainable production

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 cropping 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.

Economic and social benefits

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 communities. 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 needed.

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 security.

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.

Key grains for the future

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.