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06/06/2018 – Sustainability / Agriculture / Ancient Grain

Going with the Grain

As the profound economic and environmental issues with the world’s major commodity crops emerge, ancient grains are increasingly being touted as the global staples of the future. Helena Haimes reports.


In an era of rapid urbanisation, concern continues to mount over our ability to adequately feed the city dwellers of the future. The UN estimates that 66 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 – an increase of 2.5 billion people and 14 per cent from current levels. The big problem is that wealthier urbanites in both the developed and developing worlds are eating more homogenous diets than ever – they tend to consume far more ‘fast’ and processed food than their rural forebears, neglecting dietary diversity in favour of convenience. According to the international research and policy organisation Bioversity, more than half of the world’s plant-derived calories now come from just three major ‘commodity’ crops – rice, wheat and maize. Another study by the Global Crop Diversity Trust suggests that this lack of variety leads to a host of issues: an increase in diet-related ailments such as diabetes and obesity, for example, as well as intensifying food system susceptibility to the effects of climate change, drought, pests and disease. 


Far more than a food fad


The solution to the homogeneity issue is simple in theory but far trickier to implement in practice: encourage farmers and consumers to cultivate and eat a much broader range of plant-based foods. Over the last few years, there has been particular excitement around ‘ancient’ or ‘forgotten’ grains, with environmental scientists and food campaigners from Africa and Asia to California and northern Europe trumpeting the huge potential of crops such as sorghums, millets, quinoas and barleys as hardier, more nutritious and far more sustainable alternatives to commodified monoculture cereals. 


“Globally, it’s often quoted that there are 5,000 food crops, of which we eat half a dozen in quantity,” explains Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of British pulse and grain supplier Hodmedod’s, which works with UK farms to reintroduce largely forgotten crops to the market. “I think with globalisation and global communication over the last 20 or 30 years, people have become increasingly aware that there’s this whole range of crops that – usually by quirks of history and cultural preference – just haven’t ended up in the UK.” 


Hodmedod’s founders started by looking at cereal crops that would be relatively easy to grow in the UK (older varieties of wheat and barley, for example), taking an explicitly environment-led approach that focused on quality over quantity. “We were really looking for crops that brought something other than just yields,” informs Mr Meldrum. “So maybe they’re deeper rooting and therefore better at handling the vagaries of climate change and changes in weather; or maybe they have a different nutritional profile. We were very interested in pigmented cereals, for example, such as black barley that’s very high in flavonoids, or a lot of the older cereals, which are much higher in protein than modern cereals. Our naked barley, for example, is about 15 per cent protein.” 


The company has generally had much more success with grains such as barley and oats that have happily grown in the UK historically, though it has also experimented (unsuccessfully) with domesticated grain crops from across the globe – notably millet and sorghum. “Our aim is really to increase diversity on farms; to break away from some of the simple rotations that farmers are involved with in the UK,” advises Mr Meldrum. “It’s better for the health of the soil and the farm, better for farm economics, and better for our health as well. So we’d like to see a more complex mosaic of crops grown in areas that are perhaps currently dominated by wheat, barley and oilseed rape.”


For all the very real potential of certain ancient grains as staples of the future, Meldrum is the first to admit that the term itself has morphed into something of a food marketing buzzword in recent years, at least in the West. So-called ancient grains (meaning anything from teff and amaranth to more widely recognised crops such as spelt and quinoa) are now used to provide a very modern health halo to a dizzying array of products in Europe and the US, from taco shells and crackers to Papa John’s pizza crusts, crisps and biscuits. According to research by global market intelligence agency Mintel, there was a 269-per-cent increase in new food and drink ventures describing their products as ‘ancient’ between September 2010 and August 2016. “The thorny thing is really how you define these ancient grains – there is no accepted definition and it’s fairly meaningless in lots of respects,” he tells us. “All grains are ancient in that they were domesticated around 10,000 or 15,000 years ago in various parts of the world.” 


Staging a sorghum comeback 


While the term itself might still seem a little woolly, there is increasing acknowledgement in the developing world that certain ancient grains have much more to offer than just niche appeal to Western health food enthusiasts. Take sorghums: a family of grains with huge potential as versatile, nutrition-dense and naturally drought-tolerant alternatives to more popular crops that have been hampered by an unfortunate image problem in recent decades. Although sorghums have been widely cultivated as human food products for millennia, and over 500 million people across Asia and Africa still rely on the gluten-free grains as staple foods, in the last 50 years they have lost ground to more popular (but far thirstier and less hardy) crops such as soybeans, maize, wheat and rice. 


However, educational programmes such as the Smart Food Initiative – organised by the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) – are working hard to reinvigorate the appeal of sorghums and millets in arid areas of Africa and India. The initiative aims to boost dietary diversity, livelihoods and public health in rural areas by educating farmers, governments, health workers, consumers and food manufacturers about the huge benefits of choosing these nutritious native grains over their more modern counterparts. A Smart Food reality television programme, for example, challenges Kenyan contestants to incorporate sorghums and millets into their meals, and ICRISAT also runs regular healthy cookery demonstrations for Kenyan families. The project also focuses on boosting the (currently sorely underdeveloped) value chains for millets and sorghums, including establishing decent seed systems and creating convenience food ranges that use such grains as primary ingredients.


In the West, sorghums are currently cultivated primarily as an ethanol crop and for animal feed, although their excellent nutritional profile and versatility mean stakeholders are increasingly keen to also promote food-grade sorghums’ value as a human foodstuff. According to Frederic Guedj, Sorghum Marketing and Development Manager at French agricultural co-operative Euralis, the crop can be cultivated on over 80 per cent 

of the world’s agricultural land, while its exceptional genetic diversity means it has an impressive range of specialised food uses, including beers and other alcohols, flours and semolinas.


As the EU continues to push for a reduction in dependency on imported crops and the gluten-free market continues to explode across Europe and the US, so sorghum’s popularity with growers and food processors is starting to flourish. In September 2017, the EU launched Sorghum ID, a new platform designed to drive the development of sorghum cultivation across the bloc. Building on other recent European Commission initiatives geared towards developing silage and grain sorghum in France, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania and Italy, the new programme aims to significantly boost the crop’s currently minimal volumes by educating European farmers in cultivation techniques, enhancing storage facilities and improving market organisation. 


Maximising millet’s potential


Millets – the ICRISAT Initiative’s other primary focus – are also causing particular excitement in emerging markets. Like sorghums, they are highly nutritious and gluten-free; they are native to Africa and Asia, and therefore relatively easy to cultivate in those regions’ challenging growing conditions; and they have likewise lost serious market ground to the big commodity crops over the past half-century. And millets are just as versatile as sorghums – their stalks can be used as biofuels, as livestock feed and by the brewing industry as well as in human foodstuffs. The ancient grains also have significant potential to be produced in much larger volumes: unlike major commodity crops such as maize and soybeans which are predicted to reach yield plateaus or even declines in the coming decade, ICRISAT estimates that yields of millets and sorghums could easily increase by up to three times their current levels.


Their much-vaunted nutritional profiles mean that millets could also play a key role in the battle against obesity, malnutrition and undernutrition, as well as diet-related conditions such as diabetes and anaemia that continue to severely affect African and Asian rural communities. Finger millet, for example, has three times more calcium than cows’ milk; pearl millet is exceptionally high in iron, and kodo millet is 10 times more fibre-rich than rice and three times more so than wheat. Moreover, all millets have a remarkably low glycemic index – making them ideal foods for people who need to watch their blood sugar levels, such as diabetics.


Creating a market


Of course, such a return to a healthier, more diverse and more sustainable approach to farming and eating makes complete ecological sense. But while national agricultural policies and charitable initiatives can boost production of such crops to a point, farmers will only really be incentivised to cultivate ancient grains over commodity cereals if the market demands they do so.


While companies such as Hodmedod’s are working hard to boost the appeal of barley, spelt and homegrown quinoa in the UK, there is also a host of forward-thinking organisations that are incorporating millets and sorghums into everyday products. India’s Sluurp Farm, for example, produces a range of explicitly nutrition-dense children’s cereals, cookies, and pancake and dosa mixes that use millet as well as other domestically produced, traditional ‘supergrains’ such as ragi and jowar as core ingredients. 


In Africa, meanwhile, SAB Miller (now AB InBev) began producing the hugely popular Eagle Lager in its Uganda-based subsidiary Nile Breweries back in the early 2000s. The product – a hybrid between conventional lager and locally-produced sorghum beer – continues to enjoy considerable commercial success in the country, with new Eagle Lager processing facilities planned for Tanzania and Nigeria. The product was also hugely successful as a model of corporate-backed sustainable development: it benefited over 20,000 local farmers to the tune of £10 million (US$13.6m) and tax revenue of £47.8 (US$65m) million by 2016, while also providing £26,000 (over US$35,000) worth of scholarships and a much-vaunted HIV testing programme to 25,000 people. The company’s success in developing an entirely new supply chain that engages local farmers in the production of a highly marketable product – one utilising sustainable ingredients that return such significant benefits to the local economy – should give producers, policymakers and consumers alike serious food for thought with regards to the rich potential for an ancient grain renaissance.

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