International Year of Millets: Stepping into a sustainable future?

The resolution to increase public awareness on the health benefits of millets and their suitability for cultivation under tough conditions marked by climate change, pushes India to draw a roadmap to be among top three exporters by 2025. With collective efforts in expansion of areas under millets and by developing a successful millet value chain ecosystem with end-to-end solutions for creating demand, exports can be increased manifold. 

International Year of Millets

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Millet is a collective term referring to a number of small-seeded annual grasses that are cultivated as grain crops, primarily on marginal lands in dry areas in temperate, subtropical and tropical regions. India being the largest producer of millets in the world, accounts for 20% of the global production. It grows different millet varieties like Ragi (Finger millet), Jowar (Sorghum), Sama (Little millet), Bajra (Pearl millet), and Variga (Proso millet). The top 5 millet producing Indian states are Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.With the earliest evidence found in Indus civilization, it is grown in about 131 countries and is the traditional food of 59 crore people in Asia and Africa.

India ranks fifth in global trade, with exports going to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, the US, the Japan, Germany, Bangladesh and others. In spite of exports being less than 1% of the domestic production, a growth of 14% is recorded. It is possible that with collective efforts in expansion of areas under millets and by developing a successful millet value chain ecosystem with end-to-end solutions for creating demand, exports can be increased manifold. To increase the millet consumption its important increase millet marketability with palatability based on taste preferences among people.

Millets are rich sources of nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, dietary fibre, good quality fat and have higher amounts of minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron and B complex vitamins, making them a preferable choice over cereal grains. Due to this nutrient richness, the grains are gazetted as ‘NUTRICEREALS’ by government of India.

However, despite these substantial benefits, the millets industry has declined worldwide. During the journey towards food security, primary focus was given to other fine cereals like rice and wheat at an incentivized price. Inadequate research efforts for improvising millet cultivation and lower profitability and lack of commercialization made millets have lower yields. Along with challenges in pest and disease resistance of these crops, processing the smaller millets becomes a complex task. Void in the availability of product specific cultivars and seed hubs for the breeding has not let us exploit this superfood to its potential.

Millets: The stable crops in uncertain times

Amid such challenges, it’s heartening to see that India’s proposal  to the Food and Agriculture Organisation for declaring 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’.  India, being the flag-bearer of the above initiative has taken several steps to promote millets since 2018, declaring it a National year for Millets. The centre included a Sub Mission on Millets under National food security mission. With millets being included under POSHAN MISSION ABHIYAN by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, there has been a release of 13 high yielding varieties including 4 bio-fortified varieties of millets. Greater boost to research has resulted in release of one new variety Quinoa (Him Shakti). Along 67 value added technologies developed at centre of excellences, 200 start-ups are being supported through IIMR, Hyderabad. 

The International Year of Millets stands to provide a unique opportunity to increase global production, ensure efficient processing and consumption, promote a better utilization of crop rotations, and encourage better connectivity throughout food systems to promote millets as a key component of the food basket.

Global scenario of millets

Source: Ministry of Agriculture & Farmer’s Welfare, Government of India

Moving in tandem with several state initiatives, the central government has been trying to boost productivity of millets in the country. There has also been a constant push to increase international outreach through conferences and exhibitions. The Indian diaspora has also been endowed with the responsibility to influence international food brands and awareness about the benefits of involving millets in diet.

As the world is already facing challenges of dry lands expansion, soil degradation and ground water scarcity there is a lesser possibility of crop improvement of major staple cereals production. Millets being photosensitive (do not require a specific photoperiod for flowering) and resilient to climate change can act as good alternative in today’s scenario.

Further, hidden hunger-led lifestyle diseases surge, irrespective of rural and urban areas, and growing health challenges such as obesity and diabetes ask for a gluten- free and with low glycaemic index crop like millets. To add to this, the sudden global disruptions like unforeseen pandemics and trade wars create supply demand mismatch leading to heightened levels of inflation in developed and emerging nations for staple foods. A strategic shift to mitigate the impact of such extreme situations in the world, is the need of the hour.

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