Traditional Grains Will Enhance Food Security, Sustainable Industrial Development – Prof. Ibrahim

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Prof. Hussaini Ibrahim.
Prof. Hussaini Ibrahim.

The director-general, Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Prof. Hussaini Ibrahim, recently spoke to a select group of journalists on what Nigeria stands to gain from the development of ‘traditional’ grains and highlighted the council’s contribution to the development of these grains. NKECHI ISAAC was there for SCIENCE NIGERIA.

What are ‘traditional’ grains?

Indigenous grains are referred to as traditional grains (TGs). This food heritage has fed people for generations.  They are also legacies of genetic wealth upon which sound food security and sustainable development could be built.  Centuries ago, rice was introduced from Asia, maize from the Americas and wheat by farmers in the temperate zones. Faced with the exotics, the continent tilted away from its own TGs.  Research and development on the TGs largely dwindled.  Today, despite the development of rice, maize and wheat, the TGs still have inherent roles to play as contributors to food security and as sources of value-added products in various industries.

Can you mention some of these TGs?

Nigeria has several TGs.  Sorghum, millets, tiger nuts, cowpeas, ‘Bambara’ nuts, sesame, finger millet, fonio, pearl millet, tef, guinea corn and several dozen wild grains which are eaten occasionally. These grains are many and may be difficult to mention or describe at a go.

What are the utilisation potentials of these TGs?

Some of them are highly nutritious and also have very good industrial potentials.    Although most people may not know that sorghum is indigenous to Africa, it is one of the world’s most versatile food crops. Some types of its grains are boiled like rice, cracked like oats for porridge, malted like barley for beer, baked like wheat into bagel-like bread or popped for snacks. The plant also has many industrial applications. In Nigeria, it is malted instead of barley.  The stems of certain types yield large amounts of sugar.  As a result of the plant’s adaptability, it may eventually prove a better source of alcohol fuel than sugarcane or maize.  Also, ‘finger millet’ (Eleusine coracana) is one of the most nutritious of the major grains.  It is rich in methionine, an amino acid critically lacking in the diets of hundreds of millions of people in the world. Closely allied with this is Tef, Eragrostis tef which is nutritious.   The grain consists of about 13 per cent protein, [is] well-balanced in amino acids and rich in iron.  It is now commercially produced in the United States and South Africa. It is now an export commodity.  Also, ‘fonio’ (Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua) are one of the oldest African grains.  The seeds are rich in methionine and cysteine – amino acids that are deficient in wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, barley and rye. ‘Fonio’ grains are made into porridge and couscous, ground and mixed with other flours to make bread, popped and brewed for beer. It is a good substitute for semolina, the wheat product used to make spaghetti and other pasta.  It is digested efficiently by cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and other ruminants. It is a valuable feed for monogastric animals – notably pigs and poultry – because of its high methionine content.   The straw and chaff are also fed to animals. Both make excellent fodder and are often sold in markets for this purpose.  Apart from their food and industrial uses, some of the TGs are also important in modern agricultural development.

What are the perceivable roles of TGs in modern agriculture?

In comparison to modern wheat, rice, and maize, TGs retain much of the hardy, tolerant, self-reliance of their wild ancestors.  Such resilient crops are becoming vital for extending grains’ production to marginal lands.   In this era of global warming, they are vital for keeping arable lands in production.  Highly developed cereals like wheat, rice, maize and barley, etc, produce high yields but require intensive cultivation practices involving inorganic fertilisers and pesticides, leading to soil degradation and pollution.   For these, TGs offer outstanding promise. They are tools for building a new and stronger food production framework. For instance, most people think of rice as an exclusively Asian crop.  However, farmers have grown native rice, Oryza glaberrima, in parts of West Africa for at least 1,500 years.  The ‘African rice’ comes in a wealth of different types that are planted, managed, prepared and eaten in different ways. Some mature extremely quickly and fit into seasons and situations where other cereals fail. Apart from these, its genes might benefit the production of common rice worldwide. The ‘pearl millet’ (Pennisetum glaucum) is the most tolerant of all grains; it withstands heat and drought and performs well in regions too arid and hot to consistently support good yields of other major grains.  This makes it a potential tool for food security in arid areas, especially at this time when climate change is becoming imminent. Also, with time, the planting of sorghum is likely to surpass that of other major cereals for two major reasons; First, sorghum is among the most photosynthetically efficient and quickest maturing food plants. Secondly, it thrives on many marginal sites where other cereals fail.  Closely allied with these are the wild grains – drinn, ‘golden’ millet, kram-kram, ‘panic’ grass, wild rice, jungle rice, wild tefs and crow-foot grasses. Development of these grains will help to combat desertification, erosion and other forms of land degradation in worst-hit areas.

Why do you think the development of the TGs is so important to Nigeria now?

Despite the efforts put into the development of exotic grains, Nigeria still imports large quantities of wheat to produce flour, pasta and other products required by consumers.  The International Grains Council (IGC) puts Nigeria’s total grains production from 2018 to 2019 at 19.1 million tonnes.  These are far below national demand. The IGC puts Nigeria’s rice imports at 3 million tonnes in 2019, up from 2.4 million the previous year.  Presently, a food import ban is in place in the country. In 2019, the USDA reported that Nigeria’s animal feed sector remains the country’s leading grain user and experts have projected that Nigeria’s poultry meat consumption will increase 10 times by 2040.  Domestic poultry production is expected to increase by 8 billion eggs and 100 million kilogrammes of poultry meat per annum.   The demand for grain by this sector has been difficult to meet by local production.  This continually heavy dependence on imports to sustain food production has become a major concern as experts believe that this may not be sustainable. As a result, experts are advocating for the development of TGs through efforts to complement the exotics for food security purposes.  

What are your plans to increase the production of TGs?

RMRDC has Over the last couple of years, the RMRDC has intensified the development of the TGs through collaborative efforts.  In realisation of the roles of TGs in food security and as raw materials in the industry, the RMRDC over the years has been promoting the development, increased productivity and industrial use of some of the traditional grains.   Through its agric-boosting programme, the council had been collaborating with the mandated national research institutes to promote the development of improved varieties of sorghum, tiger nuts, cowpeas groundnuts and sesame seeds which we normally distribute to the various commodity associations throughout the country.  Likewise, the RMRDC has promoted research into the utilization of sorghum for the production of glucose syrup and ethanol. Today, through assiduous efforts of the council, tiger nut oil is now locally produced and used in various industries – especially in the making of toiletries and cosmetic industries.

To expand the frontiers of knowledge, RMRDC has initiated international collaboration with research institutes outside the country to boost the development and utilisation of the TGs.  It established a research collaborative programme with the Modibo Adamawa University of Technology [MAUTECH] and Research Institutes of Sweden [RISE] to initiate developmental research and economic cooperation programmes. These initiatives have led to the development of implementable programmes with clear objectives and goals, with RISE, VINNOVA, and TETRA PAK – all in Sweden. 

Swedish scientists have held a series of meetings with stakeholders – including those in the academia and industrialists from RMRDC, MAUTECH, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan and SCL Abuja – for collaborative networks between the two countries in the agro-food processing value-added and research cooperation. 

The Traditional Grain Network is domiciled at RISE, under the research group Product Design and Perception, in Gothenburg.  RISE has fully equipped research facilities for food materials science and has the experience and expertise in bio-processing, microstructure, materials and food science. RISE works closely with other universities and agencies in Sweden.  

Through this programme, RMRDC will organise a workshop for a stronger link between Nigeria and Sweden towards teaming up with Swedish scientists to assess prospects of the TG bio-economy and the key factors (trends, drivers etc) likely to shape its evolution. The programme will build on an existing partnership, improve the indicators and metrics that are needed to monitor the development of the TG bio-economy for sustainable development by developing research ideas for projects to meet knowledge gaps, as well as initiate and foster contacts between scientists and the industry along with the interface of the Sustainable Development goals (SDGs). 

Through this programme, we will be able to identify the most critical issues that may affect the medium and longer-term prospects for the TG bio-economy and sub-sector applications.

More importantly, it will explore the value chains and emerging new business models to identify the most promising approaches and highlight the conditions required for successful future models, including mapping inter-linkages between applications and emerging roadmaps. The programme will elucidate areas where current agricultural development policies and regulations militate against best practices and the supportive measures for the TGs and what could be put in place to encourage innovation and promising bio-based applications.  The first step towards achieving this is a workshop planned for the second quarter of 2022. Subsequent actions will be taken based on the outcome of the workshop.

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