Millets to feed 1.7b Indians?

14th February 2017
The southern Indian state of Karnataka is aiming to change its people’s farming and eating habits, with the re introduction of a group of cereals that was once a staple in the state: millet.

Until about 40 years ago, like most of India, the people of Karnataka regularly ate a variety of millets, from finger millet (or ragi) to foxtail millet. They made rotis with it, ate it with rice, and consumed it at breakfast as porridge.


In the ’60s, the Green Revolution – a national programme with the widespread use of high yielding crop varieties, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides – led to a dramatic increase in food grain production in India. But it focused on two main crops – rice and wheat – which require vast quantities of water.


“Crops that survived on rain rather than irrigation, and were far more sustainable, were forgotten,” explains Dinesh Kumar, who runs Earth 360, a non-profit organisation in the neighbouring southern state of Andhra Pradesh that helps popularise millets and train farmers to grow them. “Millets began to be seen as food for the poor,” says Kumar. “Rice was aspirational. White became right, brown became wrong.”


Today, millets are used mostly for animal fodder.


After nearly four decades of intensive farming (and growing urban populations which also use a lot of water), most of India is facing severe water crises. So, many states are trying to come up with a more sustainable way to farm. Karnataka is leading the way with millets.


There are many factors that make millets more sustainable as crops.  One rice plant requires nearly 2.5 times the amount of water required by a single millet plant of most varieties, according to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid (ICRISAT), a global research organisation helping to make millets more popular. That’s why millets are primarily grown in arid regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.


Millets can also withstand higher temperatures. “Crops like rice and wheat cannot tolerate temperatures more than 38 degrees C (100.4 F), while millets can tolerate temperatures of more than 46 degrees C (115 F),” says S.K Gupta, the principal scientist at the pearl millet breeding program at ICRISAT. “They can also grow in saline soil.” Millets could therefore be an important solution for farmers grappling with climate change – as sea level rise (increasing soil salinity), heat waves, droughts and floods.


Millets are also more nutritious than rice or wheat. They are rich in protein, fibres and micronutrients like iron, zinc and calcium, and thus hold immense promise for India’s malnourished.


Millets have a lower glycemic index (a measure of how fast our body converts food into sugar) than rice, which is thought to be one of the main factors contributing to the rise in rates of diabetes in India.


But a massive hurdle is that crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane are  way more profitable. Unless millets match up to other crops, we can’t force farmers to grow them,” says Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka’s Minister for Agriculture. “We are not trying to replace rice or wheat entirely. We are simply trying to supplement them with more sustainable crops.”


To make millets more attractive, his government has introduced a series of incentives. It offers farmers more than the minimum support price it pays for other crops, gives subsidies on seeds, and has made millets a part of the public distribution system: a country wide network that distributes cheap grains to the poor.
But millets still lack an efficient value chain.
“Millets are coarse and need more processing than other crops, but the machines for these have not reached the farmer yet, and thus production remains low,” says Gupta.

The state government has partnered with research institutions to develop higher yield seeds and better ways to process seeds. All this is in line with recommendations made by a recent report by the Global Panel On Agriculture and Food Systems Nutrition, which found that people’s diets are worsening as countries like India urbanise. That’s because it is now easier and more affordable to buy unhealthy, processed foods and sodas than healthy foods. The authors of the report recommend that countries should invest more money into making healthy foods like millets, fruits and vegetables more affordable and easily available, rather than rice and wheat. “More and more villagers are migrating to the cities in search of work,” says Gupta. “When they do, they lose their traditional food habits. We need to give those back to them.”


But it may be impossible to bring back traditional millet-based foods that have fallen out of fashion. “You can’t force people to go back to the food habits of their grandfathers – rotis, ragi balls and so forth – but you can get them to eat millet foods in tune with their new eating habits: breakfast cereals, cakes, pasta, baked products and ready to cook products,” says Byregowda.


The government is partnering with research institutions and food companies to develop new food products. It is introducing these products at fairs, where the public is also educated about the benefits of eating millets. At a recent fair, products displayed included everything from millet pastas, chips and cakes to more traditional Indian dishes. Meanwhile, many hotels have introduced millets in breakfast buffets, millet pizzas, and millet biryanis.


The government is also approaching influencers – food writers, chefs, doctors, and the media – to help sell millet to the newly affluent, quinoa- and chia-seed-eating, health conscious Indian customer. “If you can eat imported quinoa, why can’t you eat millet?” asks Joanna Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT’s director of communications.

Kumar points out, even a few handfuls of millet in your everyday foods is better for you than none. Besides, by 2050, India will need to feed 1.7 billion people. And millets could help make that happen.