The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) has focused several recent reports on new international commercial interest and patent claims on the African native crop sorghum. This includes the issues raised by the proposed widespread use of sorghum for the production of agrofuels.
This report extends ACB‘s examination of new international commercial interest in African native crops, by including a focus on pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and related African native grass species in the Pennisetum genus.i
Globally, pearl millet is less widely sown than sorghum, yet it is a key food and feed crop in arid and semi-arid parts of Africa and Asia (particularly India). Pearl millet occupies smaller but significant markets in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, where it is mainly grown for animal feed and forage. In the US, for example, pearl millet is grown on about 600,000 hectares each year. To a lesser extent, it is also grown outside Africa for human food.
Other African pennisetums, such as Napiergrass, are also economically important outside Africa. They are sold in the lucrative landscape plant markets, as lawn grasses, and as feed and forage for the bird and exotic game hunting industries.1 In the United States, recent interest in African pennisetums as landscape plants has led to a variety of new patent claims.
Like sorghum, one reason pearl millet is of interest to these markets, is its’ tolerance of dry, even desert-like conditions, and of low fertility soils. These characteristics are likely to be increasingly important in Africa and elsewhere as a result of climate change. Pearl millet is typically inexpensive to grow and may be sown on land where more water-intensive plants, like maize, would perish without irrigation. These advantages have stimulated interest in the use of millet to produce ethanol for agrofuels from grain. There is a further interest in use other pennisetum species to produce agrofuels from plant biomass.