Could one of India’s most ancient grains play a big part in the country’s future? Millets are among the earliest known cultivated cereals and, used to make porridge, ground into flour for flatbreads or fermented into beer, have been an important element in the diet of the country’s rural population for thousands of years.
During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, India saw an influx of technology, chemicals and high-yield seeds to support water-guzzling monocultures. It consequently lost many of the traditional crop varieties long-adapted to its regions, climates and cultures. As the government pushed rice and wheat production, the farming and consumption of millets fell drastically, along with their status. Increasingly relegated to use as animal fodder or for food processing, they were deemed the ‘poor man’s grain’. While advocates of the Green Revolution claimed it was effective in warding off famine, it in fact caused the abandonment of crops that could have played an important role in improving the country’s precarious food security.
The millets–a group of cereal varieties such as sorghum, pearl, foxtail and finger millet–contain high levels of protein, fiber, iron, beta-carotene, calcium and other vitamins and minerals, in many cases several times higher than those of rice and wheat. Over millennia, they have adapted to many different climates and difficult growing conditions such as poor soils and high temperatures in areas where a small Celsius increase could wipe out thermal-sensitive wheat. Millets require very little water and can survive in drought-like conditions without irrigation. In short, they can be grown in areas where other cereal crops would perish.
India’s poor small-scale farmers are often the owners of poor land in dry regions where millets are the only crops that can be grown. Rediscovering traditional millet varieties could therefore play a part in fighting malnutrition and restoring self-sufficiency to communities. While wheat and rice might provide short-term food security, millets can offer multiple securities: food, fodder, health and livelihood, particularly in the face of looming climate change.
Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty have recognized the need for a revival of this wonder grain by launching a network of Indigenous millet producers across the country. The Millet Network project aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge among farmers about cultivation, processing and value adding and create the support that a network provides. The project also aims to facilitate production for farmers by introducing training and mechanical processing methods, considering that millet processing requires intensive manual labor and therefore risks increasing the workload of the women in local communities. The cultural and traditional facets of millet will be an important focus of the project, and local professional chefs will therefore be involved, helping to bring back the lost taste of millets and promote the cereals as a tool for creating a brighter future for food and farming in India.
Photo: © Annelie Bernhart