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[MANILA] Farmers in the Philippines could one day be producing a cleaner and cheaper alternative to fossil fuels if imminent field trials of a new variety of the cereal sorghum are successful.

The sweet sorghum hybrid — called SSH 104 — is rich in sugar that can be easily converted into ethanol. Combined with petrol or diesel, ethanol can be used as  'gasohol' — a fuel that is considerably less polluting than conventional ones.

What's more, once ethanol has been extracted, sorghum can be used as a nutritious animal feed.

These are not the only benefits, says William Dar, director-general of the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which developed the new sorghum variety.

Research by ICRISAT scientists has shown that the sorghum is easier to grow than sugarcane — another source of ethanol — and matures in just four months, compared to 12 to 16 months for sugarcane. This means sorghum needs only about one-fifth of the water required by sugarcane.

During a recent visit to the Philippines, Dar told officials at the country's Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR) that the hybrid can tolerate drought, water logging, and high soil salinity.

DA-BAR's director, William Medrano, says the use of sorghum as a biofuel fits with the Philippine government's current energy conservation efforts, which involve the development and use of biologically derived alternatives to expensive oil imports.

Medrano told SciDev.Net that the first sweet sorghum seeds will arrive in the Philippines in December and field trials will take place in central Luzon and parts of Mindanao, where the landscape suits the cereal's requirements. Regional agricultural research centres funded by DA-BAR will conduct the research.

"If these field trials bear positive results, we will intensify our research efforts to make the technology sustainable so that later we could mass-produce it for distribution and commercialisation," says Medrano.

"It is high time to include sorghum in the Philippine government's list of priority commodities for research and development because of its numerous uses aside from food."

Victoria Abrera, head of Environmental Policy and Planning at the Environmental Management Bureau in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told SciDev.Net: "We have been very supportive of the government programme to promote use of ethanol".

Abrera says the department will advocate use of sorghum, if the trials show it is efficient.