A small cereal with big promise
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CTA. 1995. A small cereal with big promise. Spore 56. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47025
Hungry rice (Digitaria exilis) has been largely neglected by scientists and plant breeders in the past, but it is now being reappraised. Now that consumers have shown that they value it as a food crop, plant breeders are making use of genetic...
Hungry rice (Digitaria exilis) has been largely neglected by scientists and plant breeders in the past, but it is now being reappraised. Now that consumers have shown that they value it as a food crop, plant breeders are making use of genetic mutation techniques in order to improve its performance. Always difficult to process, the potential for hungry, rice may be further improved by a Senegalese invention of a decorticator which avoids the need for pounding. Hungry rice, known also as fonio, fundi, ocha and kabuga, grows only in West Africa in a region of some 300,000 hectares. Annual production is estimated to be about 100,000 tonnes. It can be used as a porridge or added to other cereals as meal. It can also be used as fodder and its stems can be used as a roofing material. Hungry rice will tolerate marginal land and, on poor soil, will grow better than any other crop. In fact farmers say that if nothing else will survive on a particular piece of land, then that is the place to sow hungry rice. Although this plant is one of the most hardy in Africa, it possesses a number of drawbacks. One single grain of hungry rice produces a multitude of stems or tillers and while this could be an advantage in terms of density of seedlings, it presents a problem when it comes to weeding because the stems are so fragile. Further more, the rampant, climbing characteristic of the plant makes harvesting difficult and, in any case, yields are very low indeed. It takes between 1.6 and 2.5 million hungry rice grains to make one kilo. At the present time, production is no greater than 150 to 600 kg per hectare. Nevertheless, hungry rice is much sought after. In Mali its price is triple that c>f millet and it is sold at double the price of rice or millet flour. Moreover it's consumption is expanding rapidly in towns, in particular for feast days or ceremonies such as the end of Ramadan. Even though research into this cereal has hardly begun, experts acknowledge that it has exceptional nutritional qualities. In contrast to other cereals where the germ, which is rich in fats, never disappears completely when hulled, the hulled grains of hungry rice contain practically no lipids. This is another reason why interest in this crop is growing among agriculturalists and in June 1994 the Programme for the Promotion of Indigenous Cereals of the Sahel in Bamako, Mali dedicated an international workshop to hungry rice. Improving productivity and processing Scientists have started to improve the plant by subjecting it to the now well-proven technique of irradiation in order to stimulate genetic mutations. The project for domesticating hungry rice is being undertaken by M. Sansan Da at the agricultural research station of Farakoba in the west of Burkina Faso and has been assisted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based in Vienna. Although the project has only just begun it is already showing great promise. In order to domesticate such an unimproved plant, it is necessary to modify its genetic characteristics in order to obtain seeds that are more productive and easier to decorticate. This is where irradiation has proved to be important stimulating major disruptions within the chromosomes of the plant and providing plant breeders with a diverse range of new characteristics from which to select the most useful traits. Field trials have been conducted over four years and yields of 2 to 2.5 tonnes per hectare have been achieved at the agricultural field station at Farakoba. This is a three to four-fold increase over traditional varieties. It seems that despite its reputation for low yields, hungry rice could now achieve the same level of performance as little millet (Panicum sumatrense). Another useful characteristic of the new variety of hungry rice that has been developed by Sansan Da is that it is dehiscent. This means that the husk of the grain has the distinctive characteristic of being slightly open at the top and this tiny detail, visible only with a magnifying glass, is a big step towards the domestication of hungry rice. Unlike other indigenous cereals, traditional landraces of hungry rice have a protective husk to the grain which sticks to it and surrounds it completely. This makes extraction of the germ very difficult and experts think that it is the difficulty of processing hungry rice that makes it so expensive at the market place. With a dehiscent husk, much less energy is required for post-harvest treatment. With a combination of higher yields, improved processing and an already-proven market demand, hungry rice could have a more significant future than might once have been expected.