Millets, also known as ‘Sri Anna’, are making a resurgence in line with the International Year of Millets declared by the United Nations. These grains, some of the oldest in the world, are rich in protein, fiber, minerals, iron, calcium and have a low glycemic index. Their short growing season makes them ideal for multiple cropping systems, both under irrigation and dryland farming, and their long shelf life has earned them the status of famine reserves. Notably, the millet grain varieties are said to be intrinsic to future food security given the exigencies of climate change and the potential impact on high water-usage crops.
India is leading the charge as the world’s top producer of millets, accounting for 20% of global production and 80% of Asia’s output. Millets have been historically grown in the country across different varieties and remain in the comfort zone of farmers. In response to the declaration of the International Year of Millets, the Indian government has prioritised their promotion through the National Food Security Mission and several states are also running their own Millet Missions.
High-yielding varieties, including bio-fortified millets, have been introduced to increase production, and the government has recognised the health benefits of millets by including them in the POSHAN Mission and designating them as nutri-cereals.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) are promoting farmer producer organisations and startups to boost millet production as well as technology and value addition in the segment. Millet-focused food products are being provided support under the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme to enhance value addition. The recent budget has designated IIMR as a Centre of Excellence for sharing millet-related best practices and technologies at the international level.
India’s G20 presidency is a good opportunity for millets and millet-based foods to take centre stage. It will aid in becoming an international leader and be a progressive step to counter the critical global food challenges arising due to climate change.
The government and the industry are working together to make the International Year of Millets a people’s movement and position India as the global hub for ‘Sri Anna’. Many efforts are being made towards mainstreaming millets into the consumption basket by way of introducing healthier, millet-based value-added products.
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has made millets a key focus area and is implementing a comprehensive plan for awareness creation, market exploration, and capacity building.
To support the growth of millets, a three-pronged approach has been suggested.
Replicable solutions will focus on production, including the introduction of high-yielding varieties and technology demonstrations. At the same time, frontline technology demonstrations will be critical for technology deployment, and ICAR and IIMR will have critical roles to play here along with the industry.
Orchestrated solutions will involve the development of primary processing clusters at the farm gate and strengthened infrastructure as well as increased focus on crop diversification and consumer awareness. Policy measures in procurement will also be critical to promote a shift in cropping patterns towards millets.
On the consumer side, efforts in awareness creation regarding health and nutrition benefits need to be scaled. We must create awareness among all age groups to make way for millets on every plate. A lot of work is required to enhance the taste of millet-based products to suit the consumer palate. Also, barriers like the inconvenience related to preparation of millet-based products need to be done away with by introducing easy ready to cook/ready to eat recipes.
Paradigm solutions will prioritise the export of millets, with a focus on traceability and promoting the ‘fork to farm’ rather than the ‘farm to fork’ approach. Millet exports from India include mainly wholegrains, and the export of value-added products of millets is negligible. There is huge growth potential in the millets market. Therefore, sufficiently focusing on enhancing these exports will be important.
All these efforts offer a great solution to tackle the challenges posed by climate change in food production, costs, and food security. Millets, given their climate-resilient features including adaptation to a wide range of ecological conditions, less irrigational requirements, better growth and productivity in low-nutrient input conditions and minimum vulnerability to environmental stresses, offer an effective alternative to tackle climate change and for farmers to secure and enhance their incomes.
By encouraging the consumption and production of these underutilised crops, we can help millets regain market share and create additional opportunities for small-scale farmers.
Further, currently, millets account for less than 3% of the global grains trade. When sudden shocks affect the foodgrain market, millets can provide a valuable alternative to typically traded grains. This added diversity can improve the resilience of the global trade markets and mitigate our reliance on other grains. The genetic diversity of millets lends itself to varied and innovative applications of these grains in areas such as therapeutics and pharmaceuticals. Used innovatively, millets offer even greater market opportunities for regional and international trade.
With the potential for the millets market to grow from its current value of over $9 billion to over $12 billion by 2025, it is clear that millets are poised to become a staple in households worldwide. As the world faces critical food challenges due to climate change, it is time to rediscover this ancient grain and its many benefits.
The article was first published in The New Indian Express, 3 March 2023.