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Millet: the crop of the future?

March 21, 2023
topic:Food Security
tags:#India, #food security, #millet, #climate change, #Sustainable Agriculture
by:Rashmi Gopal Rao
With 2023 declared the International Year of Millets by the UN, an increasing number of people are waking up to the benefits of these miracle grains, which are nutritionally dense, climate smart and have the capacity to empower farmers while ensuring food and water security.

I watched in awe as the young woman effortlessly flattened out the jowar (sorghum millet) dough into a circle, which she cooked perfectly on a cast iron griddle. 

"This is our traditional jolada roti (sorghum flatbread)," she said as she served the piping hot roti in a steel plate with ghee (clarified butter) and brinjal curry. The earthy aroma of the freshly ground flour and the refreshing flavours had made the meal a truly memorable one. 

This was over seven years ago, when I was visiting the suburbs of Hubli, a city in North Karnataka and my interaction with the locals there incidentally introduced me to the wonderful world of millet. 

Ancient Grains

Native to the grass or Poaceae family, millets are cereal grain crops and small seed grasses native to India and a few other countries like Niger, Mali, Nigeria, China, Ethiopia, Sudan and Senegal.

The largest producer of millet, India traces its cultivation to as early as 4500 BC. Aptly called ancient grains, millets have been an integral part of Indian food culture and were widely grown and consumed even about 50 years ago. Ragi, aka finger millet, is in fact one of the first solid foods given to infants in the form of a porridge when they are about six months old.  

"Millets have been a staple food in India even among tribals," Naresh Biswas, the 60-year old founder of Nirman - an NGO based in the tribal land of Mandla district, told FairPlanet. "For instance, it is customary for the womenfolk of the ethnic Baiga community who live in the forested regions of Madhya Pradesh to consume finger flat breads as soon as they give birth. This enables them to work in the fields just four days after delivery."

Through his NGO, Biswas has been actively working for the empowerment of the Baigas and the protection of their land rights.

Apart from finger millet, there are eight other millet varieties that are commonly grown in various parts of India. These are sorghum, pearl millet, little millet, kodo millet, foxtail millet, barnyard millet, proso and brown top millet, all of whom have local names in the region they are grown in. 

Based on the area of cultivation and the size of the grain, sorghum (jowar) and pearl millet (bajra) are classified as major millets, while the rest are minor millets. In the semi-arid and sub-tropical regions of Africa, millets like pearl, finger, tef and fonio are widely grown. 

Teff is native to Ethiopia and Eritrea, and is a high elevation crop endemic to the dry highlands. According to a 2003 report, millets are extremely significant in the dry regions of Africa, and 78 percent of the total produce is consumed as a staple food.

Forgotten Foods

In India, the production and consumption of millets took a backseat when the Green Revolution movement gained impetus in the mid-1960s. 

High-yielding varieties of rice and wheat were introduced by the government to ensure food security and alleviate poverty and hunger. Irrigation systems were improved and bunds were created to retain water in fields, which is an essential requirement for paddy cultivation. 

"This not only reduced the area of land under millet cultivation, but also led to the destruction of the diversified gene pool - resulting in the loss of several indigenous species," added Biswas of Nirman. The use of chemical fertilizers rose exponentially to improve production. 

Further, rice and wheat became an integral part of the Public Distribution System in India, which ensured their availability to all at subsidized prices.  

A Climate Smart Crop

It is key to note that millets are crops that thrive in conditions where there is less water and the soil is infertile. Studies have shown that they require just 30 percent of the amount of water needed for rice cultivation.

"Millets do not require chemical fertilizers; farmyard manure and mulching is sufficient," said Manju K.S., a production manager, Sahaja Seeds - India’s first farmer-owned organic seed company which works for the promotion of ecological agriculture through the revival of indigenous seeds. "They are low maintenance and can grow in conditions that are not ideal or favourable.

"For example," Manju K.S. added, "kodo millet grows on surfaces that are rocky and covered with tiny stones. Similarly, brown top millet grows in shady areas and hence is suitable for planting in fruit orchards, areca nut plantations, etc. It also prevents the growth of unnecessary weeds.

"Further, most of these are short duration crops that can be harvested within 80-90 days. Proso is an example, which is generally planted and harvested between two cycles of rice."

Barnyard millet produces a crop in a mere six weeks, he added.

In the southern state of Karnataka, where Sahaja Seeds is based, several farmers have successfully harvested millets in drought-prone areas and on lands that have been contaminated by the mining of iron ore.  

Nutrient-Dense Food

Millets offer a host of health benefits, and pack a punch in terms of nutrition. They were rebranded as 'Nutri-cereals' by the Indian Government in 2018, which was also declared as the National Year of Millets. 

"Millets possess a wealth of valuable micro nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, copper and manganese," said Sarita Bazaz, founder of The Food Affairs - a Delhi-based high-end catering company that specialises in soulful vegetarian food and promotes the use of millets in large events.  

"They are gluten free, low in starch and effective in regulating blood sugar levels," Bazaz added. "Additionally, they contain soluble fibre that generates a viscous substance, which binds to fats and assists in decreasing cholesterol levels.

"They are [also] a potent source of antioxidants, flavonoids, anthocyanins, saponins and lignans, offering a vast array of health advantages."

According to a 2017 study, millets are also a rich source of tannins and phenolic acids, which are essential for good health, and are known to have positive effects on diseases like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular conditions and gastrointestinal disorders.

Tanisha Bawa, a Delhi-based certified nutrition coach and founder of Train Aspire Nourish ( TAN|365), told FairPlanet that "being antioxidant rich, [millets] reduce inflammation in the body naturally and promote nerve and brain health."

"They are packed with B vitamins, protein and are a great source of calcium which boosts bone strength," she added.

Mainstreaming Millets and Government Impetus

Given its numerous benefits, millets are making a steady comeback in the last few years, and then there has been a growing awareness about them among Indian consumers, restaurant chains, chefs as well as policy makers who are promoting the grains and introducing them to the  mainstream. 

"It is key that we change the perception that millets are ‘the not so palatable, poor man’s food.' " said Arun Kaulige, founder of Kaulige Foods. "We need to find ways to incorporate them into the dishes we consume every day, whether it is salads, crepes, flatbreads or even pizzas.

He added, "We conduct millet workshops and cooking classes regularly, [and] have a huge community on our FB page, Cooking with Millets, where new recipes are shared everyday." 

The Ggovernment of India, on its part, is heavily promoting the use of millets through several national and state level schemes targeting millet farmers. This includes the increase of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for millets and its availability through the Public Distribution system (PDS).

Additionally, seed kits and other resources are being supplied to farmers to build value chains through farmer produce organisations (FPOs). 

In its recent budget, the Indian government  announced incentives for firms involved in the processing and production of millet-based products. It has also developed 30 detailed e-catalogues, where information is collated on all the Indian millets and their range of value added products which are available for export. 

Furthermore, directives have been issued to state governments and Indian embassies to carry out various promotional activities for millets. It is key to note that India has assumed the presidency of G20 for 2023 as of December 2022, and millets are an integral part of its meetings, which are slated to be held all over India throughout the coming year. 

Start-ups are also being mobilised for millet products in the 'ready to eat' and 'ready to serve' categories - like noodles, pasta, cereals, snacks, etc. 

Apart from this, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) has prepared a comprehensive strategy to promote millets, which includes road shows and buyer-seller meets in countries like South Africa, Dubai, Japan, South Korea, USA, the UK and Germany, among others. 

Tie-ups are also planned with international conglomerates like Lulus, Carrefour and Walmart.

Picture by Icrisat

Article written by:
Rashmi Gopal Rao
Embed from Getty Images
Millets are cereal grain crops and small seed grasses native to India and a few other countries like Niger, Mali, Nigeria, China, Ethiopia, Sudan and Senegal.
Embed from Getty Images
They are low maintenance and can grow in conditions that are not ideal or favourable.
Embed from Getty Images
"Further, most of these are short duration crops that can be harvested within 80-90 days. Proso is an example, which is generally planted and harvested between two cycles of rice."