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Millets an answer for our food security – India think so

Climate change is a hard reality, and the world is at the receiving end of its devastating impacts – cyclones, floods, heatwaves, wildfires, cyclones, sea level rise, etc. As a consequence of climatic disturbances, there is another problem that is shouting for our attention. That is global food security.

The majority of our existing food crops are water intensive and heavily dependent on rain and irrigation. However given water shortages, it is needed that we find responses to mitigate the looming effects of climate change, on our food system.

What is the solution to food security?

There might not be a magic bullet, rather we need conscious actions and a number of strategies to adapt to the newer environmental realities. One of which includes investing and promoting food crops that are not water intensive.

Millets are one such food crop that is primarily grown on marginal land in dry areas of temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical regions.

Millet is not one single crop but it is a collective group of small-seeded annual grasses that are grown as grain crops. Based on the region and climatic conditions, specific types of millet can be grown. 

This indicates that growing Millet should be strongly considered, especially in regions that might get affected due to erratic rainfall.

Importance of Millets in India

The importance of millets in developing and emerging economies like India, where agriculture is heavily dependent on rain-fed irrigation, is even more pronounced.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that India will face some of the most severe impacts of climate change including intense heat waves, high and variable rainfall, flooding, and reduction in crop yields. Therefore it is pertinent that India looks for alternative crops that are more climate resilient.

Millets are also important from a health and calorific perspective as it considered to be a good source of protein, fiber, essential vitamins, iron, and calcium and have a low glycemic index. Considering the large section of the Indian population is still undernourished, Millet can be an affordable substitute for nutritional value.

Millet’s historical connection with Ancient Indian civilization

The earliest evidence of Millets is found in the Indus civilization dating back to 3000 BC. It is an ancient food grain that was domesticated for food.

Scientific data also suggests that the importance of Millets grains increased over time. The excavation and carbon dating of Indian archaeological sites notes a “significant change in crop pattern (from barley-wheat-based agriculture to ‘drought-resistant’ millet-based crops)”. As per this report, the crop change is likely to be a consequence of deteriorated monsoonal conditions, especially in regions of current-day Gujarat, which became drier over time.

The current climatic scenario is also hinting in the same direction, many regions of India are expected to go dryer. Every year, a large part of the country experiences droughts and extreme heat waves. Therefore adapting to new crops which do not need too much water is not only a necessity but historically established.

Millets types in India

There are various types of Millets found in India, they include sorghum (Jowar), pearl millet (Bajra), finger millet (Ragi/Mandua), little millet (Kutki), Kodo millet (Kodo), barnyard millet (Sawa/Jhangora), foxtail millet (Kangni/Kakun), proso millet (Cheena).

Efforts made by India to promote Millet Grains

For the last few years, the Indian government is spearheading a campaign to promote Millet not only in India but internationally as well.

India observed 2018 as a year of millets to encourage and promote millet production and championed the United Nation resolution to make 2023 the International Year of Millets. The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in March 2021, supported by more than 70 countries.

The resolution envisages increasing public awareness of the health benefits of millets and their suitability for cultivation under tough conditions marked by climate change.

To promote Millets in a strong manner at the international level, even the country’s highest leadership is sparing no efforts. During the 22nd Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held in September 2022, Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi said,

“The world today faces another major challenge – and that is ensuring the food security of our citizens. One possible solution to this problem is to promote the cultivation and consumption of millets. Millets are a superfood that has been grown for thousands of years, not just in SCO countries, but in many parts of the world. It is a traditional, nutritious, and low-cost alternative to dealing with the food crisis.”

In addition, he added “The year 2023 will be celebrated as the UN International Year of Millets. We should consider organizing a ‘Millet Food Festival’ under the SCO,” 

In addition, under National Food Security Mission numerous steps are being taken to increase the production of Millet in India. The steps include the establishment of a center for Excellence and the establishment of the Millet Mission in multiple Indian states. 

In 2021, India’s public policy think tank, Niti Aayog, and United Nations World Food Program (WFP) signed a Statement of Intent to focus on building climate resilient agriculture for enhanced food security in India. This includes an increased emphasis on mainstreaming millets. 

The initiative will also explore leveraging India’s millet expertise to help other developing countries through the creation of knowledge management platforms and facilitation of knowledge exchange.

Indian start-ups and entrepreneurs are also encouraged to develop recipes & value-added products that promote the consumption of millet. Millet grains, cereals, bread, and value-added products like biscuits, snacks, drinks, etc. are now easily available offline and onlineto cater to the growing health-conscious consumers.

Wrapping Up

Despite the efforts, production of Millet in India has only marginallyincreased from 14.52 million tonnes in 2015-16 to 17.96 million tonnes in 2020-21. In comparison, wheat production stood at a record 109 million tonnes and paddy was 124 million tonnes in 2020-21. 

In spite of India being the largest producer of Millet, with about 18 percent share in the global market, the proportion of land devoted to its domestic cultivation is still very small.

With the sustained emphasis on wheat and rice for the country’s dietary needs and farmers’ prosperity, over the years, Millet’s mindshare with consumers and farmers has dwindled.

This now needs to change.

Given the climate-related challenges, it is pertinent that Indian small farmers are encouraged to shift from water-intensive crops like wheat and rice to Millet.

In summary, if Millets have to become a solution for food security, India has to overcome various challenges from the supply side in terms of production and also work towards creating demand. 

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