With the United Nations declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYOM), and the growing attempts to revive this ancient Indian grain, do you ever wonder where it disappeared to in the first place? Arathi Menon helps us understand why millets vanished from our diets, and the value of bringing it back.
In Karnataka, where millet was once the staple food, it was called Kirudhanya, meaning an inferior grain, referring to it as food for the poor. Eating rice and wheat—the grains that got all the attention during the Green Revolution in the 1960s—was aspirational. Slowly, millet was pushed to obscurity. Later, in 2018, when the Indian government realised that this coarse grain could well be our ticket to nutritional security, millet was renamed ‘nutri cereals’.
In Karnataka too, the nomenclature had changed. From Kirudhanya, it became Siridhanya (meaning bountiful crop), a positive term referring to abundance. “Some farmers involved in the revival of millet took a step beyond and called it Devdhanya or God’s grains,” says Anitha Reddy, one of the trustees of Sahaja Samruddha, an organic farmers’ organisation in Mysore working to ensure agrobiodiversity and food security.
With the United Nations naming 2023 as the International Year of Millets, these nutritious coarse grains have indeed come a long way. The increased chatter around millet revival makes one wonder if it is being revived now, what happened to it? One answer could be that we simply stopped eating it.
Snehlata Nath, one of the founders of Nilgiris-based non profit Keystone Foundation who initiated the tribal farmer collective Aadhimalai Pazhanagudiyinar Producer Company Limited, recalls working with honey hunter tribes in the early 90s. “I had noticed their diet to be dominated by rice provided through PDS (Public Distribution System). Once, we found one of the Ala Kurumba women to be very sick. We took her to the doctor and found her hemoglobin levels had dropped to an alarming three. She was very anemic. This encouraged us to pay more attention to the tribal diet and health. We found many Kurumba and Irula women to be anemic,” says Snehlata.
Curious, she probed further and realised that millets—once their staple food—had almost vanished from their farms and diet; cash crops like tea and coffee dominated the landscape with decades of Colonial rule, and there was dependence on PDS post-Independence.
Studies have shown that millets are nutritionally superior to rice and wheat. Finger millet has 30 times more calcium and little millet has 13 times more iron than rice. They are also rich in macronutrients like protein and fat, and have more fibre content than rice and wheat. Snehlata says that there was a noticeable improvement in the health of the tribals after they started cultivating and consuming millets.
A group of small-seeded annual grasses grown as grain crops, millets are believed to be the first plants to be domesticated for food. It’s an ancient grain that has been in use for millennia. Some reports suggest that reference to millets can be found in some of the oldest Yajurveda texts, with foxtail millet identified as Priyangava, Barnyard millet as Aanava and black finger millet as Shyaamaka.
The largest producer of millet in the world, India contributes 80 per cent to the basket. While there are thousands of varieties of millets in the world, some are well known and are classified into major and minor millets—major millets like Sorghum (Jowar), Pearl (Bajra), and Finger (Ragi) millets which contribute most to our millet production; and minor millets which are superior in nutrition, but low in production like Foxtail, Proso, Pearl, Little, Kodo, and Barnyard millets. Then, there are region-specific millets like Common millet, grown in the Shevaroy (Servarayan) hills of Tamil Nadu, that are more ecologically fragile than others.
‘Knowledge sharing was absent’
Official graphs show a steady decline in millet production since the Green Revolution. “With dams and water canals, irrigation became easier and we switched to water-intensive crops like rice and wheat. They were also easy to process and consume,” says Anitha.
State policies related to crop loans, subsidies, favourable conditions for commercial agriculture, and supply of food items like rice, wheat, maida and rava at a reasonable cost through the PDS, made the millets fall out of favour of Indians. A 2018 study says that even though more than 60 per cent of the total farming area in India is rainfed, a favourable condition for millets, its production saw a sharp decline in the few decades preceding the study.
“Millets play a big part in the tribal culture, and feature in almost all the rituals, including death. But when we decided to bring back millets to cultivation in the Nilgiris, we couldn’t find seeds. Farmers did not have any seeds,” says Snehlata. She says they had to source it from a few faraway villages where a handful of farmers were growing them.
Around the same time, researchers at M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) were trying ways to bring back millet cultivation in the Eastern Ghats. “We focused our study on four aspects—conservation, productivity, gender, and youth. We found that farmers wanted seeds for propagation, but were saving them in silos,” says Dr Israel Oliver King, ethnobotanist and director of biodiversity at MSSRF. “Since millet, like most other plants, is sensitive to changes in ecology, there is a decline in seed-saving when ecology changes. Knowledge sharing was absent. We created a consortium of custodian farmers to save seeds, and to share knowledge of the grain.”
When compared to cash crops, the productivity of millet was also low, which deterred farmers from sticking to millet cultivation. The youth did not find millet recipes attractive, or their cultivation lucrative. There was a need to come up with newer ways to eat them.
Another important aspect was gender, he says. “Women participated more in seed saving and processing. Processing was largely manual 15-20 years ago, which put a lot of drudgery on women. They found rice and wheat to be more efficient and time-saving,” he says. “Manual processing was a big issue due to the hard seed coat. Millets like Ragi, Sorghum and Bajra are relatively easier to process, and survived the onslaught of time and dietary changes,” Anitha concurs.
M.N. Dinesh Kumar of Earth360—an organisation working to revive millets—says there was a lack of policy focus on millets. This, combined with the absence of research on improving processing in rural areas, and a lack of support for the production of millets damaged its appeal.
There is, however, a renewed focus on the performance of millets in the face of rapid climate change. Millets are believed to be climate-resilient. They do well in dryland conditions because the plant exhibits better water and nitrogen use efficiencies and can convert more carbon dioxide to oxygen. A 2008 estimate suggests 68 per cent of the total net sown area (136.8 mha) in the country comes under dry lands spread over 177 districts.
Since India is a water-scarce country, it makes sense to cultivate crops with less water footprint than water-intensive crops like rice and wheat. WaterAid India’s Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019 report says producing one kilogram (kg) of rice requires about 2,500 litres of water, while one kg of wheat requires 1827 litres of water. The water used by a single millet plant is, on average, 2.5 times lower than that of a rice plant. It’s a short-duration crop with some of them having a maturation time of 45-70 days, half to that of rice with 120-140 days which enables them to evade many adverse climatic conditions.
That’s not to say growing millets is the answer to all our climate woes. Erratic rains in the Nilgiris damage even the millet cultivation, says Snehlata. Millets are also ecologically sensitive like any other plant. “But it’s climate hardy in that they are quick to bounce back from an adverse situation,” says Israel. Traditionally, millet cultivation followed mixed cropping where they were grown with pulses—both have a longer shelf life when dried and stored, all of which ensured better food security for the family.
Dinesh points to the fact that millets are a diverse group of crops that have varieties that can be grown in all possible agro ecological conditions across the globe. This also makes millet a good choice for nutritional and food security in times of climate change; the task lies in identifying the right variety for a certain landscape or ecological condition. The government must address these things comprehensively through smarter policies and implementation.
Arathi Menon is an independent journalist based in Mysore, Karnataka. She writes on issues related to climate change, environment and gender.
This article is part of the Millet Revival Project 2023, The Locavore’s modest attempt to demystify cooking with millets, and learn the impact that it has on our ecology. This initiative, in association with Rainmatter Foundation, aims to facilitate the gradual incorporation of millets into our diets, as well as create a space for meaningful conversation and engagement so that we can tap into the resilience of millets while also rediscovering its taste.
Rainmatter Foundation is a non-profit organisation that supports organisations and projects for climate action, a healthier environment, and livelihoods associated with them. The foundation and The Locavore have co-created this Millet Revival Project for a millet-climate outreach campaign for urban consumers. To learn more about the foundation and the other organisations they support, click here.