Millets for a healthier future

Production: India produces around 12 million metric tonnes of millets annually. 

Production: India produces around 12 million metric tonnes of millets annually. 
| Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Anna Gibbs, who was an intern at Science News, writes in the May 9, 2022 issue that “no matter how you slice it, climate change will alter what we eat in the future”. Half of all calories consumed by humans come from maize, rice, and wheat. We depend on 13 crops for 80% of our nutritional needs. Their inventories will dwindle as climate change leads to erratic rainfall and weather extremes. There is a need for growing hardier species to help secure our needs, which is why millets are gaining significance.

Millets are grown in warm regions with poor soil and yield large crops of small seeds which are used to make flour. Some examples of millets are pearl millet or  bajra, sorghum or  jowar, finger millet or  ragi. The minor millets are foxtail millet or  thenai, little millet or  samai, and barnyard millet or  sanwa, which is used in bread, rusk and biscuits.

Leading producer

Millets have been staple foods for people in Asia and Africa for over 10,000 years. They are climate-resilient, need little water and grow well in warmer, drier environments. India produces around 12 million metric tonnes of millets annually, according to Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare data. India happens to be the number one in the world in producing millets, followed by China and Niger ( HelgiLibrary).

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO/UNO) has declared the year 2023 as the international year of millets. In keeping with this, India’s Agriculture Ministry has lined up a series of millet-centric plans and activities on the use of millets, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. It also plans “eat right melas” in Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Indeed, the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has been very active in promoting the production and consumption of millets.

While most of us eat wheat and rice as staple foods, they do not have the nutritive value of millets. Hence, they are not what are called ‘nutri-cereals’. Millets have significant amounts of proteins, dietary fibre, vitamin B, and several metal ions which staple foods such as rice lack. It is thus important that millets are added to our daily food for their benefits.

Economics of millet production

Professor Madhura Swaminathan, of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI Bangalore) and the Chairperson of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in her article in The Hindu of January 31, 2023, gives a brief outline of the economics of the issue. She points out that even if about 20% of rice and wheat were to be replaced by millets in the public distribution system (PDS), it would greatly benefit the health of schoolchildren in their midday meals. Increasing the production of millets and reversing the decline in the area cultivated are feasible measures. But they may not be easy to implement and require multistep interventions. The Government of India, and the states of Karnataka and Odisha have initiated millet missions, which are welcome steps.

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