The year 2023 has been declared the ‘International Year of Millets’ by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation to recognise the importance of millets, a group of small-grained crops that have been integral to Indian diets and farming
systems for centuries.
As one of the largest producers of millet varieties in the world, India has spearheaded an initiative known as the millet revolution, which aims to improve, diversify and sustain India's agriculture and food systems in the face of growing
problems like the climate crisis.
With the rise of modern farming methods and high-yielding crops like rice and wheat, the cultivation of traditional millet crops fell out of favour and declined substantially. However, there has been a growing movement in recent years
toward reviving traditional farming practices and promoting indigenous crops in India.
At the forefront of this movement is the millet revolution, which aims to improve and transform India’s agricultural systems by boosting the consumption and production of a wide range of locally grown millet crops.
‘There has been a growing movement in recent years toward reviving traditional farming practices and promoting indigenous crops in India.’
Environmental Benefits of Millet Cultivation
One of the main drivers of the millet revolution is the pressing need to address environmental concerns associated with modern agriculture practices. The Green Revolution, which began in the 1960s, highly encouraged the usage of chemical
fertilisers and pesticides to cultivate high-yielding varieties of crops in India.
While this approach helped increase food production in the short term, it resulted in long-term consequences for soil health, soil biodiversity and water resources. The intensive use of agrochemicals depleted soil fertility, leading to soil
acidification and degradation.
Furthermore, the high water demands of modern crops such as rice, wheat and sugarcane placed more pressure on already scarce water resources, leading to problems associated with water stress.
In contrast, millet varieties are well-suited for low-input and rain-fed farming systems. Unlike modern crop varieties, millets have low water requirements and can grow in various soil types, including marginal and dryland areas. Moreover,
they are resilient to climate change with the potential to withstand extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods.
Millets are also known to significantly improve soil fertility by increasing organic matter, reducing erosion and enhancing the soil’s water-holding capacity. They have a lower carbon footprint compared to other crops, which allows farmers
to harvest them at a large scale with minimal impact on the environment.
Ultimately, the millet movement aims to introduce back and promote the use of eco-friendly farming practices that conserve finite resources, enhance soil health and promote biodiversity within the soil.
‘Millets are also known to significantly improve soil fertility by increasing organic matter, reducing erosion and enhancing the soil’s water-holding capacity.’
Social Implications of Promoting Millets
For centuries, millets have been considered a staple food in the cultures of many rural and indigenous communities in India. Around ten different millet varieties are grown across the different regions in India. Each millet variety is known
by a different name according to the local language spoken in the regions where the crops are grown.
The local names of the different varieties (in Tamil/Hindi) include pearl millet (Kambu/Bajra), finger millet (Kezhvaragu/Nachni), great millet (Cholam/Jowar), foxtail millet (Thinai/Kangni), barnyard millet (Kuthiraivali/Jhangora), kodo
millet (Varagu Arisi/Kodra), proso millet (Panivaragu/Barri), little millet (Samai/Kutki) and two other pseudo millet varieties.
These millet species vary in size, texture, colour and taste but they are often called ‘Nutri-cereals’ due to their high carbohydrate and nutritional content. They are gluten-free and rich in protein, fibre, and minerals such as iron and
calcium, offering numerous health benefits like reducing the risk of diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and malnutrition.
Unfortunately, with the rise of modern agriculture and the globalisation of food systems, traditional food crops like millet have been replaced by processed and packaged foods, leading to a decline in the consumption of healthy and
nutritious locally sourced foods.
Hence, the millet revolution aims to revive local food systems, promote food sovereignty and preserve traditional food cultures by promoting millet varieties. By supporting the rural community, small-scale and women farmers who grow
millets, the movement seeks to empower them by sharing sustainable farming techniques through state-led initiatives.
One such effort is the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective which conducts meetings to help women across India to learn how to farm millet species in small and large plots of land. The training and support given will then help provide them with a
sustainable livelihood to produce and sell their harvest.
Additionally, by supporting the consumption of millet varieties, the movement seeks to shift away from the increased intake of milled white rice, which contains less nutritional value. Subsequently, this can help improve the health status
of many, particularly those with nutritional deficiencies from rural and low-income communities.
Economic Advantages of Millet Growth
The millet revolution also has significant economic implications. Millets have low input costs and can be grown with minimal investments, making them an affordable and profitable crop for small and marginal farmers. Besides that, millets
are a versatile crop that can be used for various purposes such as food, feed and fuel.
This makes them a lucrative crop that can help provide farmers with multiple and diversified income streams. Thus, by promoting local food systems, the movement can reduce the dependence on expensive, imported and preserved foods, leading
to a more sustainable and resilient economy.
However, there are challenges associated with promoting millets as a commercial crop. Millets are often undervalued and have limited market demand, leading to low prices and poor profit levels for farmers. Moreover, the lack of
infrastructure and processing facilities for millets can make it difficult for farmers to store, transport and sell their crops.
‘Millets are a versatile crop that can be used for various purposes such as food, feed and fuel.’
To overcome these challenges, the millet revolution seeks to create market linkages and value chains that can connect farmers with consumers and create a demand for millet. This can be done by promoting value chains in processing,
packaging, marketing and distributing millet-based food products that are catered to the likings and tastes of the current generation.
This ranges from millet-based flour and flakes to snack varieties like biscuits, rusks, cakes, noodles, tortillas and more. By creating demand for delicious, wholesome and minimally processed millet-based products, the millet revolution can
help create employment opportunities, enhance the income of rural communities and build an efficient market for millet.
Political Challenges of Harvesting Millets
Besides the environmental, social and economic benefits, the millet revolution has some political implications. The Indian government has recognized the importance of millet in promoting sustainable agriculture, food security and rural
In 2018, the government launched the National Year of Millets to encourage the production, consumption and research of millets in India. Since then, several states in India, such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Odisha have developed
millet policies and action plans to promote millets as a climate-resilient and sustainable crop.
However, the millet revolution also faces several challenges. One of the main challenges is the need for more infrastructure and technology for millet cultivation, processing and marketing.
Not all consumers are aware of the health benefits of millet in fact, millet has been perceived as being associated with poverty and backwardness, which can make it challenging to promote their consumption and production.
Regardless of these challenges, the millet revolution is helping to transform and bring about positive changes. Some farming organisations have emerged as influential political voices, advocating for sustainable farming practices, fair
policies, and the overall well-being of low-income and rural communities.
‘The Indian government has recognized the importance of millet in promoting sustainable agriculture, food security and rural development.’
Future of Millet Production and Consumption
In sum, the millet revolution in India is helping to build a more equitable, diverse and resilient food system that can contribute to better food security, climate resilience, and rural development measures.
Despite the many advantages, the millet revolution faces several challenges that need to be addressed through a holistic and inclusive approach that involves all stakeholders, including farmers, consumers, business owners and policymakers.
By overcoming these hurdles, the millet revolution can undoubtedly become a massive game-changer in the food and agriculture sector, and contribute to building a more sustainable future for all.
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