Globally speaking, sorghum is the dietary staple of more than 500 million people in more than 30 countries. Only rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes surpass it in the quantity eaten. For all that, however, it produces merely a fraction of what it could. Indeed, if the twentieth century has been the century of wheat, rice, and maize, the twenty-first could become the century of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor).
First, sorghum is among the most photosynthetically efficient and quickest maturing food plants. Second, it thrives on many marginal sites where other cereals fail. Third, sorghum is perhaps the world's most versatile food crop. Some types of its grains are boiled like rice, cracked like oats for porridge, "malted" like barley for beer, baked like wheat into flat breads, or popped like popcorn for snacks.
The plant has many uses beyond food as well. Perhaps the most intriguing is its use for fuel. The stems of certain types yield large amounts of sugar, almost like sugarcane. Thus, sorghum is a potential source of alcohol fuels for powering vehicles or cooking evening meals. Because of the plant's adaptability, it may eventually prove a better source of alcohol fuel than sugarcane or maize, which are the only ones now being used.
Finally, sorghum is a relatively undeveloped crop with a truly remarkable array of grain types, plant types, and adaptability. Most of its genetic wealth is so far untapped and even unsorted. Indeed, sorghum probably has more undeveloped genetic potential than any other major food crop in the world. (See chapters 7-11; pages 127, 145, 159, 177, and 195.)
This staple cereal (Eragrostis tef) is the most esteemed grain in Ethiopia. It is ground into flour and made into pancake-like fermented bread, injera, that forms the basic diet of millions. Many Ethiopians eat it several times a day (when there is enough), particularly with spicy sauces, vegetables, and stews.
Tef is nutritious; the grain is about 13 percent protein, well balanced in amino acids, and rich in iron. In many ways, it seems to have ideal qualities for a grain, yet research has been scanty and intermittent, and so far the crop is all but unknown beyond Ethiopia. In the last few years, however, commercial production has started in the United States and South Africa, and an export trade in tef grain has begun. These seem likely harbingers of a new, worldwide recognition of this crop. (See chapter 12, page 215.)