Millets are good for us, good for the planet and good for the farmer too
Covid-19 turned the spotlight on healthy eating. So, are diets changing to impact the mass market, farms and well-being of our planet? The increased attention does not seem to be towing commensurate change. Not yet.
However, change in the form of diet diversification is precisely what is needed to make nutritious diets commonplace. In India, about 70% of the plate is either white refined rice or wheat. Major public health issues like anemia, stunting, diabetes and obesity are closely tied to diets. If cereals were diversified with millets and sorghum, we would see big gains on multiple fronts.
Why millets and sorghum?
Because they are smart foods- good for you, planet and farmer. Rich in calcium, iron, zinc, protein, fiber and with low-glycemic index, they are nutricereals. They allow multiple farm-revenue streams as they can be food, fodder, source of sugar production and even biofuels. They can be grown in high temperature, with less rainfall or water, in nutrient-poor and saline soils. They have a smaller environmental footprint. They can be eaten in many ways, including ways we are accustomed to.
For centuries, millets and sorghum were staples in India but are marginalized today. Their production has remained largely unchanged since 1960 while rice production tripled, wheat production increased 800% and maize rose by 500%.
This can only be explained by the food-farm loop. Unless consumers diversify staples by looking beyond rice and wheat, farmers have no incentive to diversify cereal production. Without the required consumer and farmer support, these crops received negligible investment compared to rice and wheat.
Indian government is leading a global movement for UN International Year of Millets in 2023. This initiative is being followed up with the ‘Millet Mission’. ICRISAT-founded Smart Food initiative is advocating demand driven strengthening of millet and sorghum value chains.
Entrepreneurs have pioneered demand-building efforts by launching a big range of millet and sorghum based foods. We can count many farmers’ groups among these enterprises. The number of foods has skyrocketed in the last five years.
These efforts will have to get bigger for millets and sorghum to return as major staples. That is possible only with demand and strong value chains.
Author: Ms Joanna Kane-Potaka, Assistant Director General-External Relations, and Executive Director, Smart Food, ICRISAT.