The Millet Renaissance: Unraveling The Forgotten Super Grains

Nandhini Sundar

Dec 11, 2023, 01:24 AM | Updated 01:24 AM IST

Students doing art work with millets during a Millet Workshop for Nutrition. (Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
Students doing art work with millets during a Millet Workshop for Nutrition. (Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 

It is a grain that has been shunned over the last century as bird feed, animal feed, questioning its suitability for human consumption. Yet, a peek into the history of the sub-continent reveals a diametrically opposite story where this grain has been referred to in many ancient texts, endorsed, celebrated for their high nutritive content and healing properties. 

Millets, over the last century, have been shrouded in a cloud of disinformation, their supreme health benefits hushed, whereby not only did the area under their cultivation take a downward trend but also the native seed varieties made a disappearance from the mainstream. Fortunately, the International Year of Millets, which is now fast drawing to a close, aided to bring back the focus on to these super grains, creating awareness not only on their health benefits but also their role in addressing the environment as well as in providing both food security and sovereignty to the farmer. 

Cultivable on any terrain

A fact that is oft ignored about millets is its capacity to grow on any type of land, arid, semi-arid, with least amount of water, contending with low fertility, low inputs and low maintenance as well as facing the harshest of climates. Along with climate resilience is its capacity to replenish the nutrients in the soil even in the driest of lands as the tall grass of the crop attracts plenty of birds, where their copious droppings serve as natural, rejuvenating manure for the anaemic soil. Crowning this is their acknowledged zero carbon footprint. 

Their capacity to flourish on any terrain also makes them a wonder crop to be used to bring back vegetation on wastelands, recovering the green cover while also addressing food security of the marginal farmers as well as provide them a regular income stream. Unlike other staple cereals, millets come with shorter duration for harvesting, permitting multiple crops in a year, increasing the quantum harvested per acre. Most millet varieties need only 60 to 90 days to mature while fine cereals take 100 to 140 days. 

“One kilogram of millets requires 300 litres of water for cultivation while the same for rice calls for 5000 litres of water. And 1 Kg of millets can feed ten individuals while the same of rice can feed only five” says Padma Shri awardee, Dr Khadar Vali, often referred to as the Millet Man of India. “Environmentalists shy of talking about these crucial facts while they vociferously espouse multiple ways to counter climate change.”  

Nutritional supremacy

Millets are categorised into major, minor, small millets. The dietary fibre of millets is high at 10 to 12 per cent as compared to staple cereals. With 65 per cent carbohydrate content, 6 to 12.5 per cent proteins and 1.5 to 5 per cent fat, millets are the best suited cereal to address malnutrition. Says Dr Vali, “The Siridhanyalu comprising of five millets—Foxtail, Kodo, Little, Banyard and Browntop—come with a fibre content of 8 to 12.5 per cent and carbohydrates of 60 to 69 per cent. This brings in a ratio of 5.5 to 8.8 between the two. A ratio below 10 offers very high curative properties.” 

Incidentally, millets release glucose into the bloodstream in a balanced manner spread over a period of 6 to 8 hours after a meal. This slow release of glucose makes them an excellent choice of food for diabetes. Combined with the slow digestive starch is their rich fibre content and lower glycaemic properties making them again best suited for the gut. Added to this is the range of micronutrients and proteins they are packed with, making them literally a super food to tackle diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, obesity amongst others. 

International Conference on Millets

Recognising the potential of these super grains and the key role they are set to play in the coming decades to address both food security and sovereignty of the farmers, an International Conference on Millets and a Millet Expo was organised by Sri Sri Naisargik in collaboration with The University of Agricultural Sciences on 9th to 11th of December at the Art of Living International Centre. 

“The objective of the conference is to take millets to the next level, in both cultivation and consumption, by sensitising farmers and consumers, make the appropriate ground level connect and create awareness on its innumerable health benefits as well as relevance to the environment”, stated Mr Ravindra Desai, Head-Strategy and Market Advisory, Sri Sri Naisargik. Dr Vali was one of the key speakers at the International Conference. 

Countering challenges

Though millets comes heads up on all counts and voices a strong case for expanding the land under their cultivation as well as level of consumption across all sections of the society, the ground realities speak a totally different story. India is the largest producer of millets, contributing to 44 per cent of the world’s millet production, followed by China at 9 per cent and Nigeria at 7 per cent. 

Yet, the millet cultivation has steadily declined in the country over the years due to disincentives prevailing in the form of Minimum Support Price for cereals such as rice, wheat and also the low margins received by the millet farmers. “Prior to the Green Revolution, 40 per cent of the cultivable land came under millet cultivation. Post Green Revolution this has dropped to less than 20 per cent”, laments Dr Vali. “Subsidised inputs, incentivised procurement of other cereals and non-inclusion of millets into the Public Distribution System have further strangulated its area under cultivation.” 

According to Dr Vali, to genuinely promote millet cultivation, at the ministerial level the agricultural department needs to come with two separate sections of irrigation and non-irrigation so that funds would be allocated to each to facilitate, incentivise dryland cultivation. “Besides this crucial policy change, ground level work in terms of altering perceptions of farmers and consumers needs to be taken up where the message of millets being the ultimate super food, time tested over centuries, is unequivocally taken across. There is also plenty of disinformation regarding spoilage of millets during storage that needs correction.” 

The fact that millets will bring about immense value addition to farmers will also need to be systematically drilled into farmers, Dr Vali adds. “This is in terms of monetary benefits, health benefits, the minimal water requirement, low inputs, low maintenance, climate resilience, waste land cultivation, shorter duration of harvest, all of which need to be disseminated to the farmers to prompt them to shift to millet cultivation.” 

Nandhini is an editor for a design magazine, and has worked with major newspapers as a journalist over the last couple of decades.

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