International Year of Millets

10 Mar 2023

Renewed Focus on Nutrition Storehouse

The United Nations General Assembly at its 75th session in March 2021 declared 2023 the International Year of Millets (IYM 2023). In this article, Livleen K Kahlon says that with the UNGA declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets, there’s a renewed focus on these nutritious grains. This move will serve best in the interest of developing countries, where almost 97 per cent of global millet production happens. But, it is going to take a lot of effort to change the mindset and lifestyles of consumers towards a millet-positive diet.

Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.
—Mahatma Gandhi

Climate Actions for Businesses

The above talisman is a prophecy made by the father of the nation, which now, after 75 years of India’s independence, is going to be true. Millets, also known as poor man’s food, have recently received a global boost by the Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYM). This move will serve best in the interest of developing countries, where almost 97 per cent of global millet production happens. Marginalized sections of the population are majorly dependent on this grain, and its production is favoured in dry and high-temperature conditions. IYM is hence seen as a recognition that will benefit billions of people in the disadvantaged sections of society who are dependent on this lesser known miracle grain.

What are Millets?

Millets are proven to be extremely good for health. Being gluten-free they are fit for consumption by those who are gluten intolerant. They are known to reduce the risk of heart diseases as they keep a check on cholesterol levels. Children on a millet diet have reduced occurrence of asthma and other breathing ailments. It is highly beneficial for postmenopausal women to keep their blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Recent research studies have also indicated that the regular consumption of millets is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. With these established benefits, it is first important to understand how millets trend in the current world’s food basket. While six great cereals that dominate the intake trend are wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats, and rye, their occurrence and consumption depends mainly on the climatic conditions. While oats and rye are dominant in colder regions of the world, wheat and barley are popular in the warm temperate regions. The third category that dominates tropical zones comprises rice, maize, and millets. Millets are a collective group of small seeded annual grasses that are grown as grain crops, primarily on marginal land in dry areas of temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical regions. While millets are used as a dietary intake in China, Japan, African countries and India, they are used as a birdseed in western countries. There are several types of millets consumed by Indian households. The most popular being sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), and finger millet (ragi). Along with a favourable domestic market, India is also the fifth largest exporter of millets in the world. While wheat, rice and maize dominate as the ‘big three’ in terms of world’s mega production; millets along with barley, oats, rye, and sorghum make up the second position. It is beyond doubt that millets are not only good for you, but also good for our planet Earth.

Demystifying the Millets

Based on the cultivation pattern, millets are classified as major and minor. Major millets include pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), foxtail millet (Setaria italica), proso millet (also known as common millet), broom corn millet, hog millet or white millet (Panicum miliaceum), and finger millet (Eleusine coracana). Minor millets include barnyard millet (Echinochloa spp.), kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum), and little millet (Panicum sumatrense). Table 1 lists the common Hindi names of millets widely used in India.

Table 1: Hindi names of a few dominant millets consumed in India

Sorghum Jowar
Proso millet Chena
Pearl millet Bajra
Little millet Moraiyo/Sama
Kodo millet Kodon
Foxtail millet Kangni/Kakum
Finger millet Ragi/Nachni
Barnyard millet Samvat ke chawal
Amaranth Rajgira/Ramdana

Introduction of Millets in Our Diet

Millet is an old world domesticated food, which also finds mention in religious scripts of many global faiths. Dry millet was the earliest farm crop in East Asia, and is resistant to drought conditions. Earliest historical evidence related to domestication of millets as a staple diet is found from remnants of Indus civilization (~ 3000 BC). While cereals dominate as our staple diet, domestication of millets in diet are assigned to parts of Northern China, and then a later spread to Russia, India, Middle East, and Europe.

While the emergence of Mesopotamian civilization is linked to abundance of wheat and barley in the fertile floodplains of Lower Tigris and Euphrates, the common millet is linked to Yellow River floodplains, and hence was responsible for development of social complexity in the Chinese civilization. Millets are now grown in 131 countries and serve as traditional food for a population close to 60 crore, majorly from Asia and Africa. It is important to systematically review the problem that ails this ‘super grain’ to be able to bring it back to its past glory. Declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets is a good start to this journey and impetus in the form of branding, production scale ups, and enhanced acceptance as a nutrition booster needs to be pursued.

The Rise and Fall of Millets

Within India, millets are seen as climate-friendly next generation crops. Millets have low irrigation requirement and can be grown in hostile conditions in rocky and sandy terrain. The starting point of decline in dependence on millets is seen as the Green Revolution (1960s), which succeeded in pulling out India from a famine situation, but adversely affected indigenous crops of the country, including millets. The revolution supported increased production of rice and wheat, but millets which were a part of the Indian culture for more than 3000 years, received a setback. Consumption of millets can make India “hunger free” and it is high time we realize the real benefits of “healthy eating”. Millets also confer ecological impetus through their adoption as a cultivation crop. As per studies brought out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR), relative water requirement (in mm of rainfall) of finger millets, and sorghum is in the range of 350 mm–400 mm, while that of maize, wheat and rice is in the range 500 mm–1250 mm. Millets require the lowest amount of water as compared to the other cereal crops and hence are the future to ensure sustainable supply of grains. Due to tougher seed coats of millets, they need more focussed efforts for their processing. This is an area that needs intervention of an advanced technology mechanization.

The Journey from Being Orphan Crops to Miracle Grains

Millets and pseudo-cereals have dual advantages of being highly resilient to harsh conditions and having high nutritional value. For a clearer understanding, pseudo-cereals comprise grain amaranths, buckwheat, and chenopods. The latter group are not cereals, but are considered as their effective replacements.

Millets as a Nutrition Storehouse

A well-balanced diet that supplies all important nutrients is essential for our growth and development. Proteins serve as important building blocks in our body, fibre diet assists in digestion, iron builds up haemoglobin in our body, and magnesium supports strong immune system, regulates body temperature, and helps in transmission of nerve impulses. Phosphorus is responsible for formation of bones and teeth, zinc helps build our immune system, copper helps us absorb iron, and also regulates blood pressure and heart rate. Copper is needed for production of melanin, manganese handles oxidative stress, and B Vitamins help in maintaining healthy hair, skin and muscles, and formation of RBCs. With this awareness, it is important to appreciate the role of millets in our diet. Millets contain high levels of calcium, iron, and beta carotene. They are definitely ahead of conventional staple food (rice, wheat), in terms of minerals, calcium, and fibres. They are a solution to prevailing malnutrition especially in dry and arid regions of the world. With a low fertilizer and water requirement they are an answer to meeting the food security concerns.

However, it is important to tread with care, if we plan an overnight switch to a millet diet. This is not advisable for infants and sick people. Millets require to be cooked well before consumption to avoid any adverse impact on health.

Interesting Facts about Millets

Millet is a small-grained annual cereal and forage grass that is widely grown in dry regions

Millets are drought resistant

Mass-scale production of jowar and ragi (millets) is being done in India

Millets have a short growing season and high productivity

Cereals have higher irrigation needs than millets.

India, Marching Ahead with Millets

India produces 80 per cent of Asia’s and 20 per cent of global millets. The top 5 millet producing Indian states are Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. Mass awareness drives through targeted food festivals, cooking workshops, consultative seminars, and continuous interactions between dieticians, doctors, civil society members, youth and students are important to create a large support base for millet production and consumption. Agriculture-based universities can create several avenues for sensitization of general public towards adoption of a millet-based diet. As India strives to find ways of achieving food and nutrition security, ensuring the sustainability of its food and land-use systems, along with an efficient use of natural resources across its diverse agro-ecological regions are imperative. Achieving this will mean building the capabilities and high-quality human resources possessing requisite skills for advancing innovation, diversification, commercialization, sustainability and increased efficiency across the value chain. The New Education Policy (NEP), 2020 and the National Agricultural Education Policy lay an emphasis on education that not only makes students ready for employability, but also build up their competency to evolve as employers. Student READY (Rural Entrepreneurship Awareness Development Yojana) was also launched to reorient graduates of agriculture and allied subjects for ensuring and assuring employability to develop entrepreneurs through enhancing and articulating knowledge, skills, ability, and experience. It requires students to take a 6-month internship to gain hands-on training (in plant/industry), rural awareness and work experience, and experience learning with business mode so as to accentuate entrepreneurship skills and work on projects that enhance research expertise, communication, and writing skills. The NEP also envisages ICAR to act as a Professional Standard Setting Bodies (PSSBs) and will be a member of the General Education Council (GEC) to frame expected learning outcomes for high education. With these provisions and the growing global acceptance of alternate food items such as millets, time is right to create intervention strategies to popularize millet-rich diet. This can be scaled up further with celebrity endorsements and brand ambassadors.

As a part of the global promotion, the FAO has laid out certain action points that will be taken up as priority steps. These include organization of global conferences on millets, research studies on millets, compilation of case studies, global recipes project, and an international exhibition and art work on millets. Active engagement with UN bodies, World Food Programme, IFAD, and institutional donors will be pursued.

The Government of India had laid out a constructive plan that will be observed to mark the IYM 2023. This includes inclusion of millets as a mid-day meal in anganwadis and schools. Celebrity endorsements and social media influencers will be involved in the millet awareness campaign. Railways and airlines will serve millet cuisines. Launch of resource material, including an ambitious cookbook with millet recipes will be done. India had already taken a first step towards promotion of millets by observing 2018 as the National Year of Millets. Now with UNGA declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets, there’s a renewed focus on these nutritious grains. It is going to take a lot of effort to change the mindset and lifestyles of consumers towards a millet-positive diet.

Livleen K Kahlon, Senior Fellow and Associate Director, EEA, TERI, New Delhi.

This article and more from TerraGreen can be viewed here:

Organic agriculture
Smart agriculture