Millet revolution

 

The Indian Government has made 2018 as National Year of Milletsto boost production of the nutrient-rich millets and the agri industry involved in it

Prologue

The Indian Government approved 2018 as National Year of Millets to boost production of the nutrient-rich millets and the agri industry involved in it. In fact, last in November India had forwarded proposal to United Nations (UN) for declaring year 2018 as ‘International Year of Millets’.

Making 2018 the Year of Millets will help in promotion of production and consumption of millets will substantially contribute in fight against targeted hunger and mitigate effect of climate change in long run. Popularizing millets will also benefit future generations of farmers as well as consumers.

Millets are smart food and good for consumers, farmers and planet; it has untapped uses such as food, feed, biofuels and brewing.

Millet is a common term to categorize small-seeded grasses that are often termed Nutri-cereals or dry land-cereals. It mainly includes sorghum, ragi, pearl millet, small millet, proso millet, foxtail millet, barnyard millet, kodo millet etc. They are adapted to harsh environment of semi-arid tropics. They require low or no purchased inputs, thus they are backbone for dry land agriculture.

Millets are nutritionally superior to wheat and rice owing to their higher levels of protein with more balanced amino acid profile, crude fibre and minerals such as Iron, Zinc, and Phosphorous. It provides nutritional security and act as shield against nutritional deficiency, especially among children and women.

It can also help tackle health challenges such as obesity, diabetes and lifestyle problems as they are gluten free and also have low glycemic index and are high in dietary fibre and antioxidants.

Millets are important staple cereal crop for millions of small holder dryland farmers. They offer nutrition, resilience, income and livelihood for farmers even in difficult times. They have multiple untapped uses such as food, feed, fodder, biofuels and brewing. Thus, millets are Smart Food as they are good for the Farmer and Planet.

The most resilient feature of this crop is that it is photo-insensitive and resilient to climate change. They have low carbon and water footprint and can withstand high temperatures and grow on poor soils with little or no external inputs. In times of climate change they are often last crop standing and thus are good risk management strategy for resource-poor marginal farmers.

Why reincarnating millet is important?

Food insecurity and hunger is on the incline, particularly in developing countries like India. The looming menace of climate change in lowering farm productivity can make the situation worse unless immediate steps to grow more eco-friendly food are not taken.

India is particularly susceptible to global warming, and rising temperatures make for poor harvests.

According to research by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research India’s long peninsula, temperatures may rise by as much as 6° Celsius by the end of this century.

In the southern states, rice yields may decline by 5% in the 2030s, 14.5% in the 2050s, and 17% in the 2080s, the ADB study predicts. This is bound to affect food security in India with climate change set to make food production in South Asia more difficult and push production costs upwards. Food shortages are expected to increase the number of malnourished children in South Asia by seven million.

On the top of it, scientists have found that higher temperatures impede the nutritional value of harvests, particularly rice and wheat.According to Environmental Health Perspectives Greater,higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to protein deficiencies. In a few decades, as many as 53.4 million Indians may be at risk of protein deficiency.

The alarming part is that small farmers, herders and fishing communities in developing countries provide the bulk of the planet’s food, will be inexplicably affected by global warming.

Renowned agriculture scientist M. S. Swaminathan has stressed that India is much in a need of a nutrition revolution. The architect of India’s Green Revolution has been advocating for a greater reliance on millets, not only to provide better nutrition but to also ensure farmers are well-equipped to deal with climate change. Calling millets ‘orphan crops,’ Swaminathan has called for greater investment in millet research to add variety to India’s food basket.

Before the Green Revolution of the 1960s, millets made up around 40% of all cultivated grains, contributing more than wheat and rice. Today the production of rice has doubled and wheat tripled since then, while that of millets has declined.

Millets were the major staple in central and southern India, as well as the mountain States since ancient times.

This grain lost its luster and vanished from our plates, after the relentless advance of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, which consumed water and needed large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, harmful to the environment.

Ironically even the Indian government became uninterested in harvesting millet and pushed only rice and wheat in the public distribution system, rendering the cultivation of millets economically unviable. This resulted in high consumption of polished rice and refined wheat flour, which are nutritionally poor and bad for ecosystems as well.

But increasing global temperature and depleting water level has made many realise that India could never be a two-grain nation. There is a huge need to expand our food basket for the nutritional security of future generations. And millets can be the climate-resilient future crop for millions of Indians. They can counter the worst effects of climate change better than most other crops.

Since millets require much less water than other crops — pearl and finger millets, for instance, can grow well with a fourth of the rainfall that rice requires — they are much better adapted for droughts.

Superior grain

Millets are known for their climate-resilient features, including the ability to adapt to a wide range of ecological conditions, low irrigation requirements, better growth and productivity even without fertilisers and minimal vulnerability to environmental stresses. Millets are also nutritionally superior to other major cereals because they are rich in dietary fibres, resistant starches, vitamins and essential amino acids.

Due to its high resistance against harsh conditions, millets are sustainable to the environment, to the farmer growing it, and provide cheap and high nutrient options for all. Nearly 40 percent of the food produced in India is wasted every year. Millets do not get destroyed easily, and some of the millets are good for consumption even after 10-12 years of growing, thus providing food security, and playing an important role in keeping a check on food wastage.

Millet is fibrous in content, has magnesium, Niacin (Vitamin B3), is gluten-free and has high protein content.

It would be rather difficult to convince people to change their diets, but the scene for millets might be changing for the better. The Food Security Act has stipulated that beneficiaries of India’s public distribution system, which constitute about 813 million of the country’s poorest, will get millets at ₹1 per kg.

But framing a law is not enough. The government must ensure that millets are adequately available at fair price shops.

Today millets are considered the last crop standing, and that is why the central government asked the U.N. to declare 2018 as the International Year of Millets.

Magic of millets

Farmers and development agencies ignored these cereals in favour of rice, wheat and other crops such as oilseeds and pulses. Millets can grow in poor soil conditions with less water, fertiliser and pesticides. They can withstand higher temperatures, making them the perfect choice as ‘climate-smart’ cereals.As against the requirement of 5,000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of rice, millets need hardly 250-300 litres.

Small millets such as kodo and kutki, among others, have a cultivation history of 3,000-5,000 years and were major food crops once upon a time. They could be the potential new tools for the government to fight socio-economic issues such as malnutrition and rural poverty while addressing sustainability concerns.

Millets are grown in about 21 States. There is a major impetus in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. The plan now is to push millets in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland because it is a major staple diet for the tribes in that region.

In 2016-17, the area under millets stood at 14.72 million hectares, down from 37 million ha in 1965-66, prior to the pre-Green Revolution era.

This decline was largely due to change in dietary habits (induced by a cultural bias against millets post-Green Revolution), low-yield of millets, and conversion of irrigated area towards rice and wheat.

Though farmers have been cultivating major millets such as jowar, bajra and ragi, production has been volatile largely due to concerns over low productivity and profitability. Production of millets stood at 16.14 million tonnes in 2016-17, of which, minor millets such as foxtail and kodo millets was 4.5 lakh tonnes.

Marketing challenges

A collective, or cluster marketing approach, is seen helping growers, while individual farmers are facing issues in selling their produce. The prices are very low in the APMC mandis. Karnataka has extended a support of ₹2,500 per acre for farmers to bring in more area under minor millets. The government should also bring millets under the ambit of crop insurance.

It is important that millets should go beyond being fashionable for the urban elite, or for those dealing with lifestyle ailments.

In fact the government should make a concerted effort to push these grains through the PDS. At least a part of the rice/wheat should be replaced with minor millets.

There is a need to promote the production of more millet by providing a price support to farmers as there’s not only a social dimension, but also nutritional and environmental aspect associated with these cereals. Promoting millets could help governments save expenditure on health and nutrition. While jowar, ragi and bajra, among others, are already under the ambit of the minimum support price (MSP), Prakash sees a scope for including more grains such as foxtail millet.

From PDS to supermarkets

Various States have been distributing millets such as bajra, jowar and ragi through the public distribution system (PDS), along with other cereals such as rice and wheat. Efforts are now being done to include the nutrient-rich smaller millets in the mid-day meal schemes in government and government-aided schools in Karnataka and Telangana.

Millet awareness is catching up fast in the urban centres such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi among others. Millets are gluten-free and have a low glycemic index. Their micro-nutrients composition is also better as compared to rice or wheat.

Millets are gaining ground in wheat-dominated North India among which ragi (finger millet) is most popular, followed by bajra (pearl millet) and jowar (sorghum). Also becoming popular among health-conscious, educated city dwellers in North India are foxtail millet and barnyard millet.

The rise in consumption of iron and calcium-rich ragi in Gujarat has led to the increase in the State’s area under finger millet by a third to around 20,000 hectares over the past eight years. Eastern Gujarat, which predominantly houses tribal population, has been the heartland for ragi, but consumption has been growing in other parts of state.

Innovation in products made out of millets right from baby foods, breakfast cereals to bakery products, desserts, ice cream and even liquor, is fuelling consumption. Millet-based brews, which were common in the North-East, have now found their way into urban centres, where breweries are trying various grains such as ragi to kraft beers.

Corporates and start-ups

Companies, on their part, are trying to ride this emerging trend. Large players of packaged staples and processed food manufacturers, such as ITC and Britannia, among others, and a host of start-ups, have already introduced millets in their product-mix.

All millets are basically gluten-free nature and there is huge export demand for non-glutenous products. The renewed focus on millets is seen fuelling a start-up revolution and creating new jobs. Many of the entrepreneurs are mainly into retailing various millet-based products, while cafes serving millet-based foods are becoming popular in cities.

IIMR, which has developed an exclusive brand for millets – Eatrite – has now started an incubator at its Hyderabad campus to promote start-ups working on ‘convenient’ millet foods. Eatrite brand of millet products, worth ₹50 lakh, are sold in cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi. Surely, the millet bandwagon is rolling along.

 

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