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Spring 2005 - Sorghum

Destination Purdue > Spring 2005 - Sorghum

Research helps feed many in Africa

By Whitney Fraker

Sorghum 1
Sorghum 2

Photos provided by Dale Hess

These photos show sorghum fields in Ethiopia. The one on the top is filled with purple weeds called striga. The one on the bottom contains striga-resistant sorghum.

Imagine you live in a country where droughts and weeds make growing your main food source a constant battle and farmers expect as much as 65-100 percent of their crops to die by harvest. This is exactly how people in Ethiopia felt when their primary food source, sorghum, was infested with striga, a parasitic weed, until Gebisa Ejeta, a Purdue University agronomy professor researched this problem.

"Sorghum flour can be used to make leavened or unleavened bread, porridge, or can be used to make alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages following fermentation," said Ejeta, explaining the crop's importance. Unfortunately, striga attacks sorghum fields, leaving farmers with meager harvests.

Ejeta's research led him to create a type of sorghum that could withstand striga. He also needed to make sure Ethiopian farmers had an ample amount of seed to produce enough food to provide immediate relief to the country. Ejeta and the late Larry Butler, professor of biochemistry, grew eight tons of seed to deliver to Africa.

What is sorghum?
By Whitney Fraker

In the United States, sorghum is one of the most important crops used to feed livestock. Believe it or not, Ethiopian growers use it to make:

  • Flour
  • Starch
  • Syrup
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Popped popcorn
  • Non-alcoholic beverages
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Porridge
  • Bread

"We wanted to see the fruits of our research labor here at Purdue make a difference in the lives of the poor in Africa," said Ejeta. And when he saw the people there, Ejeta got what he came for. "It was enough to see the joy in their eyes," he said. World Vision, a Christian relief organization, picked up the seed and delivered it to specified areas throughout Ethiopia and other regions of Africa.

Researchers at Purdue have continued to create more digestible, nutritious and drought resistant sorghum varieties. The drought resistant sorghum can better withstand dry weather conditions than other sorghum varieties.

The sorghum that has been enriched with lysine gives consumers more nourishment while eating the same foods. Lysine is an amino acid necessary for cell production that is not made by the body, it has to be eaten. The more digestible sorghum gives the consumer an increase of 41 percent digestible protein.

As a result of this research, Ejeta hopes people in regions where striga has traditionally wiped out crops will be able to live healthier, longer lives.