Millets as the Super-Solution – The Financial Express

The Financial Express
By Sharon Susan Koshy
The gravity of food security across the globe, particularly in South Asia is a complex and layered issue that must be understood against the projection that the global population is set to hit 10 billion by 2050. Contrary to the earlier imagined solutions focused on increased food production, global actors and agricultural scientists in the region unanimously believe the key is to focus on nutritional security and climate-conscious and sustainable agriculture by reorienting global agricultural trends. Many experts have advocated resilient agriculture, diversified food supply chains, sustainable agricultural practices, and bringing back indigenous varieties of crops as the immediate steps to be undertaken. And, the answer may well have been right in front of their eyes!
The cultivation of millet can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation and Vedas as one of the first domesticated food grains by ancient humans. They were excellent crops for drought-prone areas and a variety of millet was grown in the Indian subcontinent including kodo, browntop, sanwa, and little millet. The Silk Route from China accelerated the evolution of millets in India as the varieties from China and Africa also converged in the Indian subcontinent in addition to its own indigenous varieties.
Also Read: The millets march
Although up until the world wars millets were a staple in the South Asian food basket, with globalisation, a majority of the world’s population started consuming similar food products which had devastating effects on indigenous food systems. Indigenous and traditional cereals like millet were perceived as inferior and backward and consumed by poorer sections of society.
Two events in particular in post-independent India can be attributed to the disappearance of millets from the farmlands and food baskets in the country: the Green Revolution in the 1960s and the Public Distribution System.
The former focused on solving the rampant hunger in the country by promoting high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat backed by government subsidies. The PDS started in the 1970s became a deciding factor in wheat and rice dominating the diet of Indians thereafter and the major cause of the decline of millets. Consequently, millets were relegated to small pockets of tribal communities in Northeast and East India.
Enhancing nutritional value for the same calorie production is the crux of sustainable food systems. Towards this end, the UN accepted India’s proposal to commemorate the year 2023 as the International year of Millets in an effort to fuel research and awareness to effect a dietary revolution, enable science-policy interaction, empower stakeholders and also to nourish existing partnerships and build new ones.
Bringing back millet is not just crucial to global food security and solving hidden hunger, it is also vital for environmental sustainability, biodiversity, and water security. Rich in fibre, protein, antioxidants, and micronutrients like iron and zinc, millet could address the issue of hidden hunger in vulnerable countries. Low in glycemic index and free from gluten, millet provides a better food option for patients suffering from bowel diseases and diabetes.
Also Read: PM Modi bats for higher millet output, inclusion in public distribution system
Millet is a climate-resilient crop that can grow in harsh weather conditions and survive floods or droughts. They are also tolerant to diseases and pest infestation and can grow with minimal inputs which can reduce soil degradation. South Asian agriculture which is heavily monsoon dependent is in the face of an impending water crisis which will have adverse effects on agriculture yield and farmer income as well. Millet is an excellent alternative to water-guzzling crops like wheat and rice which are causing severe groundwater scarcity in many parts of South Asia, including India’s Haryana and Punjab.
To counter future shock waves from disruptions of food supplies, diversifying food supply chains is also vital. Millet’s comeback into food systems can improve agrobiodiversity which will improve the resilience of global trade markets. It also holds immense potential for future research applications in areas like pharmaceuticals and therapeutics. Therefore, millet could play a significant contributory role in achieving the SDGs such as Ending Global Hunger (2), Good Health and Well-Being (3), Decent Work and Economic Growth (8), Climate Action (13), and Life on Land (15).
Given the fact that at least 80 percent of millet farmers are women, it could also accelerate India’s efforts to achieve gender equality (SDG 15). 80 percent of millet All across India, women farmers have been adopting traditional and climate-smart techniques to preserve seeds and grow more than 150 varieties of millet every season. They are also practitioners of sustainable farming practices like intercropping which protects from climate- and market shocks and enables assured returns on investment. Placing women at the centre of millet-linked initiatives can empower women farmers and agro-based entrepreneurs, reinforce their financial independence and nutritional security and enable an inclusive rural economy.
Currently, only 11 percent of the total cultivated land is under millets which accounts for only 6 percent of output. The 2023 Economic Survey, however, maps a worrying reality that the average acreage for millet is only a quarter of that of rice or wheat which makes farmers reluctant to cultivate millet. The government has kickstarted a slew of initiatives including Shree Anna announced in the Union
Budget 2023 to promote millet for domestic consumption and exports. Still, there is a wider scope for government agencies, local governing bodies, NGOs, FPOs, and research organisations to support and incentivise millet cultivation by integrating the market, capital, and technology ecosystems. The approach should aim towards mainstreaming and making millet income-smart to attract more farmers to take up millet as a primary crop of cultivation.
As we wrap our heads around the ripple effects the Ukraine war has had on energy and the global economy, the impending crisis of food security is in the making, which has long-term and multidimensional implications. In fact, re-introducing millet to our agricultural lands and diets would offer critical solutions to depleting natural resources and food crises during climate emergencies. As we are facing a dwindling window to take immediate action to curtail the devastating effects of climate change and its associated challenges, millets as the superfood could be the super solution we have been searching for.
The author is Visiting Fellow, NIICE Kathmandu.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.

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