Focus on the millets value chain for fortified nutritional security



This superfood has been losing ground that must be won back by means of a campaign fed with inputs from success stories

Millet consumption in India dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Millets are highly nutritional crops with low carbon footprints that are rich in protein, minerals and dietary fibre, making them more nutritious than fine cereals. Their low glycaemic index also helps in controlling diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. These crops can be grown on arid and semi-arid tracts where fine cereals like wheat and rice cannot be grown profitably.

India is the world’s largest millet producer. India’s Pearl Millet production accounts for 40% of the world’s millet production.

Research by Washington State University has found that dry-lands worldwide will expand at an accelerated rate because of future climate change. Millets can solve this challenge, as they can be grown on less fertile and acidic soils where wheat cannot be produced. Similarly, rice is susceptible to soil salinity. Pearl and finger millets can be an excellent substitute for rice cultivation on land where the soil salinity is 11–12 dS/m (DeciSiemens per metre) or more. Moreover, the rainfall requirement for rice is around 120-140cm, which is very high compared to certain millets like pearl and proso millets, where the need is as low as 20cm.

Recognizing the enormous potential of millets in providing food and nutritional security, which also aligns with several sustainable development goals of the United Nations, India’s government named millets as ‘Shree Anna’ in this year’s Union Budget and announced support for the Indian Institute of Millet Research, Hyderabad, as a centre of excellence for sharing best practices, research and technologies at the international level.

The advent of the Green Revolution led to increased production of wheat and rice all over the world. However, as an unintended consequence, there was a decline in area under the cultivation of nutrition-rich crops like maize and millets (jowar, bajra and ragi). With an increase in yield for rice and wheat, the per hectare returns on rice and wheat became much higher than millets, which left no incentive for farmers to grow these crops.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, the taste and preferences of consumers also changed over time. Rapid urbanization led to more demand for ready-to-eat food using refined wheat flour. As a result, between 1962 and 2010, India’s per capita millet consumption fell drastically from 32.9kg to 4.2kg, while wheat almost doubled from 27kg to 52kg, according to Assessing Millets and Sorghum Consumption Behaviour in Urban India: A Large-Scale Survey, 2021.

Even though India became self-sufficient in producing cereals, assured procurement and sustained income from the rice-wheat cropping system have resulted in the over-exploitation of scarce water resources in some Indian states. Almost 78% of the administrative blocks in Punjab and 49% in Haryana have reported over-exploited groundwater resources.

Studies have shown that one of the reasons for households not consuming millets regularly is their lack of knowledge on how to incorporate these in their diets. In villages, it has been found that millets are cooked in houses without much knowledge of its health benefits. Taste is another reason many people resist eating millets, an indication that health awareness alone would not significantly boost millet consumption.

Therefore, rather than focusing only on one segment of the millets value chain, we should focus on the entire value chain, an exercise that would include improved varieties while assuring millets better shelf lives, efficient processing and access to markets. This should include branding, packaging, awareness programmes, and also collaborations with ready-to-eat brands. In addition to that, we also need breakthroughs in productivity to make these crops more competitive and stimulate commercial demand.

During the 1980s, poultry farmers in India faced a huge problem of low egg demand, as expected in a predominantly vegetarian country. An identified problem was an egg dealer mafia of intermediaries who exploited these farmers. At that time, with the inspiration of the Amul cooperative model, B.V. Rao took the initiative to form a cooperative egg model. What came to be known as the National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC) was formed with efforts that began then. However, its main challenge was to generate enough demand for eggs. That’s when the NECC collaborated with a top advertising agency and developed a creative jingle, “Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khao ande," that was widely aired in India. It resonated well with the country’s middle class and per capita consumption of eggs significantly increased over time. We may need a similarly aggressive campaign for millets.

‘Shree Anna’ has lost its status as a ‘superfood’ despite its once-recognized ability to address various health concerns, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, child undernutrition and anaemia. To revitalize its significance, we must reconnect with our traditional knowledge base and pay attention to the entire spectrum of India’s food system, spanning every node along the way from the ‘fork to farm.’

Odisha has set a remarkable example through its ‘Millet Mission,’ which embraces a community-led approach involving 1,500 Tribal women-led self-help groups (SHGs) to foster millet entrepreneurship across the value chain. This effort should be replicated in other states.

These are the authors’ personal views.

V. Anantha Nageswaran & Shweta Kumar are, respectively, the chief economic advisor and officer of the Indian Economic Service in the ministry of finance, Government of India.

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