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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 6 February 10, 2024

Millets: The Resilient Saviors of Nutrition and Sustainability | S N Tripathy

Friday 9 February 2024, by S N Tripathy


Food security remains a critical global concern, with accessibility to nutritious food still elusive for many. Significant challenges persist despite the United Nations’ ambitious target to provide food for everyone by 2030. The staple carbohydrates on which humanity heavily relies lack essential amino acids and minerals crucial for optimal nutrition. This deficiency in diet contributes to the prevalence of diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and diabetes. Millets, in contrast, boast a unique nutritional profile, rich in dietary fibres, antioxidants, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

Often overlooked in mainstream diets, millets emerge as nutritional powerhouses, boasting high levels of essential vitamins and minerals. Millets stand out for their rich content of vital vitamins, including alpha-tocopherol, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid. Moreover, they are abundant in essential minerals such as calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), iron (Fe), and manganese (Mn). This nutrient diversity makes millet an excellent addition to a balanced diet. The nutritional richness of millet contributes to a myriad of health benefits. It is found that incorporating millet into one’s diet may reduce the risk of developing diabetes, obesity, cancer, gastrointestinal tract (GIT) issues, and cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). These grains serve as a valuable supporter in promoting overall well-being.

Millets, often overlooked but integral to the sustenance of developing countries, particularly in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa, are emerging as vital players in ensuring food and nutrition security. Their significance is particularly pronounced in countries like India, Nigeria, and Niger, where they thrive in soils too impoverished to support conventional crops. The unique attributes of millets, including their higher tolerance for drought, low nutrient application, and temperature fluctuations, make them resilient and adaptable, especially in climate change. Their short growing season and ability to withstand higher temperatures position them as ’climate-smart’ cereals.

The current global landscape, marked by climate change, necessitates preserving natural resources. Millets offer a promising solution, thriving in poor soils that may not support traditional crops. Compared to staple grains, millet cultivation requires minimal water, less fertile soils, and reduced usage of pesticides and fertilizers. Unlike conventional cereals such as rice, millets demonstrate remarkable efficiency in water usage, requiring only 250-300 litres per kilogram compared to the substantial 5,000 litres needed for rice cultivation. This makes millet a sustainable choice with numerous nurturing benefits for the ecosystem. This inherent sustainability is gaining attention, especially as urban consumers grapple with lifestyle-related disorders. In India, millets are cultivated across 21 states, with significant impetus in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana. However, the total millet cultivation area has declined to 14.72 million hectares in 2016-17, down from 37 million hectares in 1965-66 before the Green Revolution.

India’s diverse millet crops include Sorghum (Great millet), Bajra (Pearl millet), Ragi (Finger millet), and minor millets like Korra (Foxtail millet), Little millet, Kodo millet, Proso millet, and Barnyard millet. Often referred to as coarse cereals, their nutrient richness has led to their reclassification as ’Nutri cereals.’ Millets boast mineral-rich profiles containing iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. Finger millet stands out with its calcium content, surpassing rice, or wheat tenfold.

Millets occupy 15.48 million hectares in India, producing 17.2 million tonnes in 2015. Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Karnataka emerged as the leading states in millet cultivation. However, despite their nutritional prowess, millets’ contribution to India’s total food grain production has dwindled from 22.17% to 6.94% from 1950-51 to 2011-12. This decline is attributed to the relentless promotion of crops like rice and wheat during the Green Revolution, particularly in resource-rich irrigated areas.

Characterized by the introduction of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) in the late 1960s, the Green Revolution aimed to boost agricultural productivity. Programs such as the Grow More Food campaign and the Intensive Agriculture Development Program sought to resolve the growing demand for cereals. While successful in increasing production, the Green Revolution left significant ecological and societal impacts. Loss of indigenous landraces, soil degradation, excessive pesticide use, unsustainable farming practices, farmer suicides, and the shift from agriculture due to economic pressures were among the consequences.

Millets confronted a significant threat during the Green Revolution, with a shift in dietary preferences, low millet yields, and the conversion of irrigated land to rice and wheat cultivation. This trend persists, exacerbated by the unnatural promotion of maize for biofuels and poultry feed. Millets are gaining popularity as gluten-free with a low glycemic index and boasting superior micronutrient compositions than rice or wheat. Polyphenols like catechin and Sinopic acid found in millets have been associated with various health benefits. These compounds contribute to the prevention of arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and inflammation. The incorporation of millet into daily diets holds the potential to mitigate and even cure many health complications, offering a natural and sustainable alternative to conventional staples.

As urban consumers struggle with lifestyle-related disorders, millets are self-assured for an upward trajectory in the days to come. The need to reverse the decline in millet cultivation is evident for their nutritional benefits and resilience in the face of changing climate conditions. As the world struggles with food security and environmental sustainability challenges, millets emerge as a promising solution. Their unique nutritional composition and adaptability to poor soils make them a sustainable option for cultivation. The mainstreaming of millets in both publicly funded programs and private sector initiatives presents a comprehensive strategy to tackle nutritional deficiencies.

By integrating international, national, and state-level endeavours, we can pave the way for a transformative era in which millets guarantee food security and enhance public health. The synergy among governmental entities, private businesses, and global organizations is indispensable for the triumph of this endeavour. The inclusion of millet in our dietary patterns not only fosters improved health but also substantially contributes to our planet’s overall well-being. In our pursuit of meeting the United Nations’ 2030 objectives, millets emerge as a beacon of hope for a more resilient and healthier global future.

The abundance of vitamins and minerals in millet contributes to a spectrum of health benefits, offering protection against various chronic diseases. As we prioritize diverse and nutritious food choices, millets emerge as a versatile and beneficial option for promoting overall health and well-being. A comprehensive public awareness campaign should highlight millets’ nutritional richness and sustainability, targeting urban and rural populations. The campaign can also emphasize the environmental advantages of millet cultivation, positioning it as a climate-smart and eco-friendly option. Collaborations with government agencies, NGOs, and private sectors can amplify the impact of this initiative.

The government can implement targeted incentives to encourage millet cultivation and support farmers. This may include subsidies on millet seeds, equipment, and irrigation systems, making it economically viable for farmers to choose millets over other crops. Training programs and workshops can be organized to educate farmers about modern millet farming techniques, enhancing their productivity. Moreover, establishing millet processing units with government support can create value-added products, boosting the overall economic viability of millet cultivation.

(Author: Prof S N Tripathy, Former Professor of Economics, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, currently at Berhampur, Odisha)

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