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  Opinion   Columnists  14 Jun 2023  Suman Sahai | It’s time to take millets seriously, to fight climate, food challenges

Suman Sahai | It’s time to take millets seriously, to fight climate, food challenges

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at
Published : Jun 15, 2023, 12:11 am IST
Updated : Jun 15, 2023, 12:11 am IST

Millets are of crucial importance to weather the ravages of climate change.

Millets can play a major role in addressing climate induced challenges to India’s food and nutrition security. (DC File Photo)
 Millets can play a major role in addressing climate induced challenges to India’s food and nutrition security. (DC File Photo)

The cacophony surrounding the celebration of 2023 as the Year of Millets seems to be tapering off. After the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared 2023 to be the Year of Millets, there has been an explosion of events highlighting millets. Most of these programmes generated awareness about these important but sorely neglected grains. Such awareness programmes were badly needed because, as the camera recordings showed, most visitors were fairly clueless about these foodgrains.

Millets are of crucial importance to weather the ravages of climate change and introduce a degree of resilience in our food production systems. Global warming with rising temperatures will upset established agriculture systems, creating turbulence in the food output. Wheat, that is North India’s main rabi (winter), crop is expected to be the most severely affected by global warming. According to data modelling, wheat is anticipated to suffer significant declines in production as temperatures rise.

Reduced wheat production will create a crisis in India’s subsidised food programmes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in schools, the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services Scheme), the Annapurna and Antodaya food schemes, as well as its buffer stocks. After the Green Revolution, wheat and rice have comprised the bulk of the food that goes into the buffer stocks, which India has steadfastly maintained to overcome bad times and shortfalls in food production.

Millets can play a major role in addressing climate induced challenges to India’s food and nutrition security. That is because millets are hardy crops, they need little water and have high temperature tolerance so they can withstand global warming better than other crops. These versatile crops can grow in a wide range of agro-climatic zones because they have a wide adaptation window. They grow well in high altitudes and till recently formed the staple of all our Himalayan states. They grew equally

well in low-altitude areas like the plains of India until the Green Revolution came along and the pampered rice and wheat displaced them from farmers’ fields. In addition to these advantages, millets are highly nutritious, packed with micronutrients like vitamins, minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and antioxidants. They are far more nutritious than rice and even wheat and corn and can play a strong part in alleviating the crippling malnutrition in our country.

However, getting millets into the mainstream supply of foodgrains will need more than awareness programmes. There aren’t simply enough millets being cultivated in India. According to the last available data from 2019-2020, the production figures for major millets, that is bajra (pearl millet) and jowar (sorghum), that has received far more attention than the smaller or minor millets, were 10.4 million tonnes and 4.8 million tonnes respectively. The production of minor millets is so little as to be practically invisible. The production figures for finger millet (ragi) together with all the other small millets like kodo, kutki, cheena, etc, add up to a measly 3.7 million tonnes. These figures clearly have to go up several fold if millets are to be taken seriously.

To achieve this, substantial research and development work is required in the small millets. Traditional landraces will need to be characterised and evaluated and new varieties will need to be developed that combine high yield with other properties like disease resistance and good storage capability. This can be best done using the well-established but little used method of Participatory Varietal Selection, or PVS, where farmers are involved in the selection and breeding process of developing suitable varieties. This works better than the top-down approach, where only scientists do the selection and breeding, because farmers select varieties matched to their requirements and knowledge of local cropping conditions.

The Gene Campaign has been conducting PVS trials with finger millet and barnyard millet in Uttarakhand. These have included the planting of traditional varieties sourced from farmers’ fields, varieties from the collections of the NBPGR (National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources), Bhowali and varieties developed by the Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan Sansthan, Almora. Farmers visit the trials at different stages and select varieties according to their preferences. For instance, they select smaller, sweeter grain varieties for self-consumption but bolder grains for marketing or larger, bushy plants if they are looking for green fodder.

In addition to breeding new varieties with a range of different properties, substantial amounts of good quality seed will have to be produced to create adequate seed stocks. Otherwise, where will you direct the farmer to procure good seeds when you promote millets? One of the bottlenecks in improving the production of many crops is the non-availability of good quality seeds.

Another aspect requiring attention is the processing equipment that is needed to convert the harvested seed to edible grains. Many minor millets have hard seed coats which need to be removed so machines will have to be developed for this. Like rice mills de-husk paddy and turn it into rice, machines will have to be developed to de-husk millets.

And finally, if millets are to compete with rice and wheat and become equally attractive for farmers, then a similar policy regime will have to be developed. This must include facilitated cultivation conditions, a government procurement programme and remunerative Minimum Support Prices (MSP).

Sloganeering and fancy nomenclature is not going to do it for India’s farmers. Calling it “Shree Anna” is no allurement and means nothing to the farmers. Ragi remains ragi and kodo remains kodo.

Tags: millets, climate change, nutrition food