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Millets (and sorghum): the hardiest and heartiest of grains

A head of red sorghum grains ready to harvest

This year is the International Year of Millets, and with sowing underway for Australia's summer crop of sorghum, included among the world's millets, we take a look at this diverse grain family and why millets are considered a particularly sustainable and nutritious grain.

Millet refers to a diverse group of small-seeded cereal grains, generally belonging to the Panicae tribe of grasses. The United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets as an opportunity to promote the nutritional and health benefits, the sustainable production and market opportunities for millets under adverse and changing climate conditions.

Millets are grown around the world and are critical crops in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa. This is because they have a high productivity in a short growing season with minimal inputs (like fertiliser and pesticides) and have a high drought and heat tolerance.

This makes them a favourable crop for drier climates, especially for smallholder farmers facing water scarcity or lack of access to inputs.

The great millet

Often considered part of the millet family, sorghum, sometimes known as 'great millet', is an ancient grain native to Africa. It is the main millet grown in Australia.

Sorghum is Australia's largest summer grain crop, producing around 2 million tonnes annually.

It is primarily grown in the northern cropping belt of eastern Australia, and is typically harvested from March to June.

Australian sorghum is used as stockfeed, for biofuel, as an ingredient in some consumer food products and is exported for the production of the popular Chinese liquor baijiu, which is often made from fermented sorghum. There is an emerging baijiu industry in Australia as well.

Worldwide, sorghum is often used to make flatbread and porridge. It is a gluten-free grain, rich in antioxidants and is low GI, meaning it keeps you feeling fuller for longer. An example of sorghum on supermarket shelves in Australia is gluten-free Weet-Bix; sorghum is the main ingredient.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation has funded research to explore other uses for Australian sorghum in food products.

If you’re interested in the various ways you can cook and prepare a diverse selection of millets at home, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has provided a free downloadable recipe book.

A crop of sorghum ready to harvest stretches to the horizon

How are millets sustainable?

Water efficient: Millets have high water retention and can go dormant during stressful environmental conditions, increasing their heat and drought tolerance, meaning they grow well in much drier conditions than most cereal crops.

Low-input: Millets have a high productivity over a short growing period and require minimal fertilisers and insecticides compared to other cereal crops, meaning they have a reduced environmental impact.

Minimises soil erosion: Millets have a deep root system. The plants can penetrate hard soils, reducing soil erosion and allowing them to access moisture deeper in the soil.

Biofuel: High-biomass sorghum, pearl millet and sweet sorghum have been developed to produce biofuel, including biodiesel, ethanol and biomass pellets that can be used in electricity production.

Carbon sequestration: With its deep root system, millets have the potential to sequester carbon deeper into the soil, and high-biomass millets can sequester even larger amounts of carbon into the soil.

Habitat conservation: In arid areas, the millet stalks left after harvest can replace cover crops, adding nutrients back to the soil, retaining moisture, reducing wind erosion and providing habitats over winter for wildlife such as pheasants and quails.

Millets help to meet the food security and nutritional needs of people living in challenging environments. They also contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 2, Zero Hunger, and SDG 13, Climate Action.

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