The problem with alternative grains

“The difficulty we have with millets, sorghum, chia, amaranth and the others is that we lack specialized machinery to process them, or it is not wide spread. Even sorghum and canola, which have a huge industrial value and are grown worldwide, cause a lot of headaches. If you load canola in a truck designed for the conventional grains, you could (depending on the design) slowly miss a sizable portion of the shipment. How do we dry chia, if it escapes through the perforations of our conventional dryer? How would we even harvest it, using our standard combines?”

Prof. Gustavo Sosa
Industrial Mechanical Engineer
Licensed Grain Inspector
MBA Project Management
SOSA – Engineering Consultants
ing.gustavo.sosa@gmail.com
As I understand it, alternative grains are the ones less consumed by the general population. The big three grains are wheat, corn and rice. The second tiers are sunflower, oats, buckwheat, and rye. I don’t list sorghum here because it is mostly grown for animal feed and alcohol production. So, alternative grains are sorghum, millets, and the exotic grains like quinoa and amaranth.

There is no doubt that “the other grains” have many benefits, for the health and for the economy. They include nutrients that have been lost in major grains because of the emphasis on energy content through starch. In the process, we have also made these grains much easier to handle. Maize is the most striking example.

The difficulty we have with millets, sorghum, chia, amaranth and the others is that we lack specialized machinery to process them, or it is not wide spread. Even sorghum and canola, which have a huge industrial value and are grown worldwide, cause a lot of headaches. If you load canola in a truck designed for the conventional grains, you could (depending on the design) slowly miss a sizable portion of the shipment.

How do we dry chia, if it escapes through the perforations of our conventional dryer? How would we even harvest it, using our standard combines?

The prospect of using under-cultivated areas with highly nutritious crops sounds amazing. These are crops specially to areas that might not be suitable for other crops. The nutritional value they have, and the exotic appeal, means you could charge more. However, they require new technology so we can process them with the same efficiency of the standard crops.

Red sorghum is very attractive because the high content in tannins makes it bitter and less likely to be attacked by birds and rodents, but that very same characteristic is undesirable for human consumption. For alcohol production it is great, but for making food you need a tannin-free variety (white sorghum) and that eliminates the advantage of repelling pests.

Teosinte, the original plant, has very little to do with what we grow today.

There are several methods to decrease the concentration of tannins and make it more nutritive to humans and cattle. The easiest one is using rice polishers to get rid of the external layers of the grain, where there is a higher concentration of tannins. Other methods involve the use of potassium carbonate or ammonium hydroxide as sequestrant agents, with better results.

Millets in general share this problem of being too small for conventional equipment. The solutions here are two:
1) To design and manufacture equipment specially adapted to these grains.
2) To develop new varieties with larger grain size.
The first approach is the simplest, but it makes the equipment more expensive, and it won’t provide an acceptable solution for other grains, as the performance will suffer.

Wet milling may be used to process sorghum and millets very much like it would with corn or wheat, but it is more expensive to build a wet mill than a dry one. The huge advantage is that you don’t need any special setups. Roller milling can be used to process millets the usual way, just making minor adjustments.

Abrasive decorticators, as those used in rice milling, can be used with sorghum and millets, but the yields are lower than with other technologies. Their efficiency relies largely on the absence of contaminant seeds.

Sorghum is a well-known grain for the manufacturers of handling equipment, but millets are not even considered in commercial literature. Not that there isn’t any academic literature, but the fact that brochures don’t mention them shows the lack of preparation of most manufacturers. Those businessmen who want to invest in millets will have to educate their suppliers. Special designs are required, what means a higher price will be demanded by those suppliers who already did their work.

The second approach takes a lot of time, but it could be accelerated with GMO’s. The disadvantage is that a GMO chia won’t be any attractive to the hipster crowd that is currently demanding it, ready to pay a premium price. It would force to open the market for the general public who just want affordable food. The big money is in getting consumers away from rice, corn and wheat, and into these alternative grains. That requires marketing through mass media, and creating consumption alternatives that are not only fashionable but also practical.

What is needed here is a joint effort to promote millets and the other less popular grains; including genetic laboratories, universities, milling organizations, and farming associations. We need marketing to reach the consumer, genetics to improve the grain, technology to process them, and farms and mills that will make it happen. Without a commitment of the whole production chain, any individual effort is largely doomed.

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