Sorghum grain provides answer for food shortages, K-State researchers say

Sajid Alavi, professor of grain science and industry, stands in front of the processing equipment used to create his fortified food products. Alavi is working to feed malnourished children overseas. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

From developing countries to the most modern places in the world, feeding children and boosting economies is a constant challenge for leaders, but Sajid Alavi, professor of grain science and industry, is working to find solutions to these problems.

Alavi and the research team he works with at Kansas State University are finding ways to better utilize the 21 million acres of Kansas row crops — corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum — to feed hungry populations and give Kansas agriculture an economic boost.

Alavi’s team consists of five researchers, including Brian Lindshield and Sandra Procter, assistant professors of food nutrition.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds Alavi and his team. They have taken their research across the ocean into Tanzania to benefit local children with their more sustainable crops and fortified food research.

Alavi’s team creates fortified food products, or dry foods and meals ready to eat enhanced with extra nutrients to “fortify” them, which aids in the development of malnourished children by giving them more calories and nutrients.

Alavi’s meal for children has a high caloric value and is made from corn and soy bases. However, children tend to enjoy drinking the current product instead of eating it with a spoon, so many families put a lot of water into the meal to allow children to sip it from a cup, which results in the number of calories available for consumption being replaced by water.

The team’s current fortified food product is already produced and shipped all over the world, but Alavi said he wants to create a new formula that not only feeds more children, but also benefits Kansas farmers.

The new fortified food product (left of the hot plate) and the current product (right of the hot plate) are easily made by boiling water and adding it to a powdery mixture. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

Procter studies how children receive the team’s products in Tanzania. Her research has helped to provide guidance on what children are most likely to positively receive as a food product, such as something sweeter that is drinkable from a cup.

Their new product is produced from sorghum grains and is “more viscous” compared to the previous product, Alavi said, allowing for children to sip the product without losing calories.

The species Sorghum bicolor, which is also known as milo in Kansas, is a common row crop that is traditionally used for livestock feed. With the team’s research, another industrial use for sorghum could arise and allow for a different market with Kansas farmers.

According to the USDA’s 2018 State Agriculture Overview, roughly 2,650,000 acres of sorghum were harvested for grain. Most of that grain went to making livestock feed.

Alavi said the grain is easily grown in Kansas, has a low input value — meaning it needs less water, insecticides and herbicides — and has a high caloric value to help the early stages of development in children.

“Sorghum … is a very sustainable crop and requires much less water to grow in Kansas where there’s not much rainfall,” Alavi said. “It is drought tolerant, it doesn’t take necessarily as much fertilizer as corn does or as much water as corn does.”

The team is not only working to help feed hungry children and give Kansas farmers a new outlet for their produce, but also to begin the process of farming more sustainable products.

“As we promote foods based on sorghum like these products, we are really also aiming toward sustainability,” Alavi said. “We connected with sorghum farmers, and they want more value for their produce, which is very important for them, and we are here to help farmers.”

The sorghum product Alavi and his team are creating will also positively impact the Kansas economy, Alavi said.

“This is a big international impact and global impact,” Alavi said. “We’re helping kids and mothers, but also we’re helping our farmers at the same time. It has to help us as well when we help others, meaning it has to help taxpayers, too.”

Grain science research assistants Ivy Gichohi (left) and Alex Eichman stand in the room where their fortified food products are created. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

Ivy Gichohi, research assistant in grain science, was born in Kenya and now lives in the United States. She said this research is impactful to her since she is originally from an area that food science research directly affects.

“I can make a difference,” Gichohi said. “I can be a part of something. … I’m not there, but I can make a difference while I’m still away.”