Down but not out

by World Grain Staff
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The sorghum industry has faced difficult challenges in recent years, but opportunities for growth exist

by Arvin Donley

For many years, the world sorghum industry consisted of two very distinct sectors: the traditional, subsistence farming sector, where most production was consumed directly as food in places like Africa and Asia, and the modern, mechanized high-input sector, where the finished product was primarily used as animal feed, mostly in developed countries.

In recent years, an industrial sector for the crop has developed. Increasingly, sorghum is being used as a raw material in renewable fuels production, particularly in the U.S., where about 12% of the sorghum crop is used to make ethanol. However, the crop is still primarily used in food and animal feed.

While worldwide production numbers for several major crops — most notably corn and soybeans — have soared during the last 15 years, annual sorghum production has remained relatively flat during that time, fluctuating mostly between 53 and 59 million tonnes, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics.

Production has trended slightly downward in many of the major sorghum-producing countries during the past decade. India, although still the country with the greatest harvested area, has seen that number drop from 10.4 million hectares in 1999-2000 to 9 million hectares in 2005-06. Production has always been a challenge in India, with yields coming in at about 54% of the world average.

China is another major sorghum producer that has seen a drop in both area harvested and production. The area harvested has decreased 44% during the past seven years, from 979,000 hectares in 1999-2000 to a projected 550,000 hectares in 2006-07. Production has dropped from 3.2 million tonnes to 2.4 million over that seven-year span.

The opposite has been true in Africa, where the crop remains critically important for rural food security. The harvested area has soared in the past seven years in countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sudan, which will earmark 6 million hectares for sorghum production in 2006-07, about 1.5 million more hectares than in 2000-01, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

In the Western Hemisphere, production in countries such as Argentina and Mexico has remained steady. But in the U.S., acreage has dropped from 16 million in 1984 to 6 million in 2006 and production has fallen from 22.7 million tonnes in 1992-93 to an estimated 7.3 million in 2006-07.

Jeff Dahlberg, research director for the National Sorghum Producers (NSP), an organization based in Lubbock, Texas, U.S., said reasons for these declining numbers include:

• the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a governmental policy that offers incentives to farmers who convert erosion-prone cropland into vegetative-covered land;
• commodity programs that are more favorable to other crops;
• more favorable insurance coverage on other crops;
• a reduction in sorghum research and investment by private industry.

Although the NSP is making some progress in increasing research dollars, sorghum still lags far behind most other U.S. grain crops.

"Profit margins on a bag of sorghum seed are nothing like what you see in corn or other crops," Dahlberg said. "In fact, we are, on a per-acre basis, a lowercost cereal crop than wheat. Cheap seed means little research investment, little management, little interest by our seed industry and little input of chemicals and fertilizers."

Despite the concern over stagnant production and consumption numbers in many parts of the world, the sorghum industry is seeing some positive developments that may eventually make the crop more relevant.

Most notably, there is greater demand for sorghum in ethanol production, particularly in the U.S., where corn has become a more expensive commodity in recent months.

"A bushel of sorghum produces roughly the same amount of ethanol and DDGS as a bushel of corn," Dahlberg said. "Sorghum may be slightly higher in protein and lower in fat than corn, depending on the year, but our research on DDGS indicates that sorghum is equivalent in feeding value and energy."

Dahlberg said sorghum is somewhat unique in that it fits into all three current ethanol conversion processes: grain to ethanol, sugar to ethanol and biomass to ethanol.

He noted that China and India are using "sweet sorghums" to produce ethanol. Researchers have found that this type of sorghum can produce sugar levels equivalent to sugarcane, which is used as a raw material in about 60% of the world’s ethanol production.

"On the biomass side, we are working to evaluate how sorghum will fit as a feedstock in the biomass-to-ethanol model," Dahlberg said. "We believe that sorghum offers characteristics such as high tonnage forages, low-lignin bmrsorghums and drought tolerance, which should make it quite competitive as a biomass feedstock."

Growth opportunities also exist in the food sector. Food-grade sorghum, used in a variety of products such as flatbreads, porridges, couscous, malted drinks and tortillas, has a neutral taste and is known for its ability to enhance flavors. Japan, for example, has used sorghum in its snack food products for many years.

Sorghum is mostly used to either blend with wheat or as a substitute for wheat flour for those allergic to the gluten found in wheat. It can be highly refined or sold as whole grain flour.

Dahlberg said that because sorghum has unique starch characteristics and is not digested as fast as some other cereals, products containing sorghum could be a benefit to diabetics. In fact, a private pet food company has a patent for a diabetic cat food in which the main cereal ingredient is sorghum.

In the U.S., sorghum is used almost exclusively for feed or ethanol purposes, but Dahlberg noted that there has been a slight increase in "food-grade" sorghum acreage in recent years as U.S. companies have shown more interest in using sorghum in food products.

"There are currently several companies selling gluten-free products on the market and there is one bread company using ‘high-tannin’ sorghum bran and flour to provide antioxidants to their specialty breads," Dahlberg said. "In fact, there are several breakfast cereals that can be purchased over the Internet that are made from sorghum flour."

In addition, several companies are exploring the use of sorghum to produce gluten-free beer. "Though this is not a huge market, it does provide us with a tremendous amount of visibility for the crop and people are starting to see it as more than just animal feed."

The global sorghum-for-feed market remains fairly steady. The principle feed users are Mexico at 10.7 million tonnes per year; the U.S. at 6.1 million tonnes per year; Argentina at 2.4 million tonnes per year; and Japan at 1.9 million tonnes per year.

The U.S. has traditionally occupied 70% to 90% of the world market for sorghum exports over the past 30 years, and Dahlberg said that percentage will be even higher this year because of the drought in Australia.

One of the advantages sorghum has over most other crops is its ability to grow in a relatively dry environment. In this "global warming" era, when climates in many parts of the world seem to be getting hotter and drier, sorghum could become an attractive alternative to more water-intensive crops, which explains why it is such an important crop in India and Africa.

Dahlberg said during the last 1,000 years, agriculture has been defined by distinct eras, such as the "Green Revolution," in which improved crop genetics have led to self-sufficiency in many countries, and the current "Biotech Revolution," in which scientists are attempting to map the genetic sequence of various crops.

Dahlberg believes the next era will be called the "Blue Revolution," referring to the impact water supply issues will have on agriculture.

"As the world’s population increases and demand for water increases in urban areas, there will be more pressure on farmers to use less water and to plant more drought-resistant crops," Dahlberg said.

From a practical standpoint, farmers won’t be able to economically compete for water with other industries, he said, perhaps forcing them to consider sorghum as an alternative to more water-intensive crops.

"You have seen a tremendous push to introduce corn into many marginal agricultural areas in Africa, and this has had some real consequences that people are just beginning to identify. Aflatoxins and mycotoxins can be serious issues for corn in regions where water stress is an issue. Its drought tolerance and lack of mycotoxins is one of the reasons sorghum continues to be a dominant cereal in these regions."

Dahlberg acknowledges that the sorghum industry faces some difficult challenges but remains optimistic about finding new markets for the crop.

"With the increase in ethanol plants and their demand for grain, the issues facing us in water usage and the demand for greater yield with less input costs, I’m bullish about sorghum’s prospects for the future," he said.