There’s a new, old superfood in town – millets.
Once a staple for farmers in many parts of India, and the world, millets – essentially a diverse group of coarse cereals with high nutritional benefits – is again gaining prominence after the United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of Millets and the government of India promoted the nutri-grains in a series of initiatives.
Said to be among the earliest crops grown by humans for food, the earliest evidence found of millet cultivation in the Indus Valley civilization puts it around 3,000 BC, says an agriculture ministry document on millets released in 2022.
Grown in over 130 countries and traditional food for 59 crore (590 million) people in Asia and Africa, the millets family is divided into two categories – major millets and minor millets based on their grain size. The major millets include the more known names – bajra (pearl millet), jowar (sorghum), and ragi (finger millet). The minor millets include foxtail millet (kangani/kakun), proso millet (cheena), kodo millet (kodo), barnyard millet (sawa/sanwa/ jhangora), and little millet (kutki).
Then there are pseudo millets such as buck-wheat (kuttu), popular during Navratri fasts, and ameranthus/amaranth (Chaulai), which are not technically part of the true grain family but are nutritionally similar.
Year of the millets
As the focus intensifies on climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the battle against hunger and malnutrition, the United Nations General Assembly, at its 75th session in March 2021, declared 2023 the International Year of Millets (#IYM2023) after a proposal led by India found support from more than 70 countries worldwide.
According to the UN, #IYM2023 is an opportunity to raise awareness of, and direct policy attention to the nutritional and health benefits of millets and their suitability for cultivation under adverse and changing climatic conditions. The Year will also promote the sustainable production of millets while highlighting their potential to provide new sustainable market opportunities for producers and consumers.
Prime minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the opening ceremony of the International Year of Millets at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome last year, congratulated the United Nations and the FAO for the launch of the International Year of Millets 2023 and expressed appreciation to member nations for their support. FAO is the lead agency for celebrating the year in collaboration with other relevant stakeholders.
Stating that a global movement on millets is an important step to ensure food security, the prime minister said millets are easy to grow, climate-resilient, and drought-resistant. “Millets are a rich source of balanced nutrition, compatible with natural ways of farming, and need less water. Millets are good for the consumer, cultivator, and climate.”
The big millet push from the Indian government
Even before #IYM2023 2023, the Indian government promoted millets, first celebrating 2018 as ‘The Year of Millets’ – pushing for recognizing the importance of the cereals through events and seminars, creating a domestic and global demand and providing nutritious food to the community.
Mega food events, quizzes, seminars, documentaries, inviting start-ups, songs, jingles, slogan contests – a host of activities are being organized across India via a special micro-site to make millets more popular. A big push came in the Union Budget 2023 when finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced plans to popularize millets in India, which she said is the largest user and the second largest exporter of millets in the world.
The Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR) in Hyderabad is the designated center of excellence for sharing best practices, research, and technologies. Among financial incentives, the agricultural credit target for millet production will be increased to Rs 20 lakh crore (approximately US$ 250 billion).
Local cuisines made using millet such as jowar vegetable upma, ragi dosa, bajre ki tikki, and bajra khichdi will be part of the parliament canteen menu. Last year, union minister Narendra Singh Tomar hosted a millet-only lunch for all the MPs.
Environment-friendly and highly nutritious
Last year’s prolonged dry spell in India’s rice-growing belts during the peak monsoon forced many farmers to make a last-minute switch to millets. Many studies indicate that millet yields are less sensitive to rainfall and temperature variations than rice.
Millets’ relatively short growing seasons and longer shelf life also make them particularly useful in times of climatic and economic stress. Unlike water-guzzling rice and wheat, millets can grow on arid land with minimal inputs and are resilient to changes in climate. They are, therefore, seen as an ideal solution to increasing crop productivity in the drylands, for improved self-sufficiency and reduced reliance on imported cereal grains.
In a 2018 notification, the government says millets are a powerhouse of nutrients. Research shows how millets are a good defense in the fight against diabetes. An FSSAI guidance note explains how millets are gluten-free and non-allergenic. Consumption of millet decreases triglycerides and C-reactive protein, which help prevent cardiovascular diseases.
All millets are rich in dietary fiber, which has water-absorbing and bulking properties. It increases the transit time of food in the gut, which helps reduce the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases and acts as a detoxifying agent in the body. Millets have a low glycemic index, which means such foods have less impact on blood glucose levels than foods that are higher in the index. They are also gluten-free, making them ideal for people with celiac disease.
Owing to their nutri-benefits, millets now find a place in public food programs such as mid-day meals and the supplementary feeding program under the Integrated Child Development Services.
India leads the way
India’s major millets-producing states are Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttarakhand – together accounting for around 98% millets production in India during 2020-21, says Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) data.
According to APEDA, India is among the top five exporters and the largest producer of millets globally. Agriculture ministry data quoting FAO statistics show India produced around 173 lakh tons (17.3 million) – 80% of Asia’s and 20% of the global production of millet over 138 lakh hectares (13.8 million) of crop area in 2019. Worldwide, 863 lakh tons (86.3 million) of millets were produced over a crop area of 718 lakh hectares (71.8 million).
Agriculture ministry data says India exported millet products worth US$ 34.32 million during 2021-22. In 2020- 21, India exported millets worth US$ 26.97 million, and US$ 28.5 million in 2019-20.
Crop area and production of millets, however, fell after the green revolution that promoted high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat. Till 1965-70, millets constituted 20% of India’s grain basket, which fell to 6% in recent times.
Since 2018 the government set up a subsidiary mission on millets under the National Food Security Mission. As many as 200 start-ups with a turnover of Rs. 320 crore have been supported through IIMR, Hyderabad, and 13 high-yielding varieties, including four bio-fortified varieties of millets, have been released.
Word of caution
Experts in the fields of agriculture and nutrition, however, warn against millets going the green revolution way, when, allegedly, in a bid to increase yield nutritional quality and genetic diversity were compromised.
“One concern about the millet revival is a potential loss of genetic diversity in the rush to increase millet yields and maximize production. Genetic diversity across species and varieties is the bedrock for future adaptation to changing climate; diversity in crops has enabled humanity to weather swings in climate for millennia,” write Ruth DeFries, an environmental geographer and a professor at Columbia University and Sujatha Ghosh-Jerath, Program Head, Nutrition at The George Institute for Global Health-India – in conservation and environment news and features service Mongabay-India.
Iksha Chhabra, a Delhi-based nutrition and product development expert, explained how wheat, traditionally a high-fiber product, now causes bloating and gut-related issues because of changes to its basic genes. She also warned against millets ending up as processed products such as chips and biscuits or wafers and stressed that consumption in a proper and traditional manner can truly derive benefits to the populace.
In another article in Business Standard, Reshma Roshania, a post-doctoral fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, also warns that instead of millets becoming a super-processed food for the urban elites, its demand should be revived in rural areas and the streets to deal with malnutrition.
All in all, Mission Millets holds great potential to fight malnutrition among India’s masses if executed properly and not merely as a political slogan or social media fad.