What's old could become new once again, with the nutritional and drought-tolerant qualities of ancient food staples of sorghum and millets offering profit potential for Australian farmers.
That's according to International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) director general Dr Peter Carberry, who said shifts in dietary preferences of the Asian middle class open the door to crop diversification.
A crop physiology expert, Dr Carberry was a chief research scientist at CSIRO before he took up his Hyderabad, India-based role with international food security research powerhouse ICRISAT.
"When I left Australia I did an analysis that showed the best Australian farmers were getting the production they deserved, and the only way to get more was the take more risk or through some technical change," Dr Carberry said.
"They've done all the technical efficiency they can, and gotten bigger. What can they do next? They've got to find something they can sell into the global market."
Dr Carberry said Australia's cropping sector should identify crops with new traits "so we can seed the future market in health food, glycemic index for diabetes, zinc and iron deficiencies, issues of health foods and obesity".
"Can Australia find traits to put into our bulk commodities like we did with high protein wheat, which gave us an advantage in the past so we could sell it at a premium. Are there other traits we can use?
Sorghums and millets are rich in vitamins and minerals, gluten-free, and have a low glycemic index. Finger millet has three times the calcium of milk.
"A lot of Sorghum is for cattle feed. But if you go into health food in Woolies and Coles you'll see a lot of products that have sorghum and millets," Dr Carberry said.
"Australian ecology is really meant for those crops. A fair chunk of wheat we grow now is suitable for millet and it will do much better than wheat in marginal country.
"It's a spring - summer crop, so in real Mediterranean environments where you don't get any rain in summer, it probably won't work.
"But as you go from Central NSW to Queensland, it's perfect."
Dr Carberry said early-stage investment in crop breeding programs could "absolutely" create varieties of millets and sorghum to compete with wheat yields.
"Either the Australian innovation system can see there is potential and it invests to meet the potential market growth in a big set of consumers. Or it can wait until it happens and jumps on board later.
"It's a difficult call, but being proactive and helping to create that demand could be good for Australia."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.