Widely recognised as a super food, millets play a crucial role in transforming health, nutrition, agri-food systems and climate across the globe as they are nutrient rich, carbon neutral and resource efficient
India has been at the forefront of transformation. Yet, it faces a development paradox. On one hand, Indian agriculture has been able to successfully overcome many challenges to continue to be the bright spot in the economy despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to our agriculture’s resilience, we are not only a food secure but also a food surplus country and our exports of agricultural and allied products in 2021-22 grew by 19.92% to $50.21 billion, which is by far the highest. Yet, ironically, we have a development paradox of not achieving targets of some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pertaining to nutrition.
Data from the recently published National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS) in 2019-21 has worryingly indicated a slow progress in reducing the burden of malnutrition in India. Over one third of all under-five children are still stunted (low height for age) and malnourished and every fifth child is wasted (low weight for height). India is also grappling with a double burden of malnutrition as there has been a rising menace of ‘overnutrition’. Nearly one-fourth of India’s adults are either obese or overweight, making them vulnerable to excess risk of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.
Poor nutritional status and associated nutrient deficiencies are primarily a reflection of our unbalanced and poor diet. The available national level consumption data from National Nutrition Monitoring Board (1979; 1991; 2002; 2012) indicates high consumption of calorie dense food, which lack essential micronutrients like iron, vitamins, folic acid and so on.
Given the challenge, the importance of millets cannot be overestimated. Widely recognised as super food or “Miracle Crops” or “Crops of the Future”, millets play a crucial role in transforming health, nutrition, agri-food systems and climate change across the globe as they are nutrient rich, carbon neutral and resource efficient. Millets are nutritionally wholesome with macro and micro-nutrients, naturally gluten free, have anti-inflammatory properties, and are rich in dietary fibre which helps combat and prevent many non-communicable diseases like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and so on.
However, once an integral part of Indian diets, millets has been forgotten by us due to many demand and supply problems. On a per capita basis, millet supply dropped from 35 kg a year to 13 kg over the last five decades, thereby reducing the intra food diversity from our plates. The decline can be attributed to both demand and supply side challenges. Some of the demand side factors include increasing urbanization and per capita income causing change in consumer taste and preference, mainstreaming of rice and wheat in social safety net programmes. Between 1962 and 2010, India's per capita consumption of millets fell drastically from 32.9 to 4.2 kg, while that of wheat almost doubled from 27 to 52 kg. Lack of public awareness about the nutritional benefits of millets has further disincentivised farmers from cultivating millets and limited adoption of millets-based products. Higher time utility in its preparation has also dissuaded public from demanding millets.
The biggest factor on supply side has been absence of technological breakthrough in yield of millets similar to green revolution increasing yield of rice and wheat and maize, thereby shrinking millets’ profitability. Weak value chain in production and processing of millets, absence of advanced technology to promote decentralised processing, and lack of industrial demand for value-added millet products further discouraged farmers from cultivating millets. The ecosystem to promote millet production in terms of infrastructure such as processing technologies, and unique milling equipment to address the total value chain is inadequate. Further, relatively shorter shelf life of the crops creates storage and spoilage related concerns.
However, there are silver linings that are worth highlighting. India is the largest producer, among top five exporters of millets despite a decline in area and production of millets. Overall, the yield has shown a positive growth since 2010 with a CAGR of 2.12 per cent. Millets were officially declared as nutria-cereals and a sub-mission on nutri-cereals under the National Food Security Mission was launched in 2018. Millets are also included under POSHAN Abhiyaan to further boost its demand and supply.
India is the proposer of International Year of Millets 2023, and hence time could not be more apt to further boost its production and consumption. Many states are also emerging as bright spots in initiatives to promote production and consumption of millets, which should be further replicated and upscaled across India.
With an aim to revive millets on farms and plate, Odisha Millets Mission leads the way by simultaneously focusing on production, processing, consumption, marketing, inclusion of millets in Government Schemes like PDS and ICDS, and entrepreneurial activities like establishment of Shakti cafes. The Mission was started with 30 Blocks (7 Districts) in 2017 but due to positive response and demand from the farmers it was expanded to 142 Blocks (19 Districts), thereby ensuring nutrition security in the region.
Some States like Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have also provided livelihood opportunities by engaging women self-help groups to produce, prepare and market millets. Many States like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana have also been providing millets in Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), thereby guaranteeing demand for sustained supply of millets. There is a need to further replicate these initiatives not only across all anganwadi centres but also Mid-Day Meals and Public Distribution System.
Further, investment in research and technology should be further promoted to improve the efficiency in millet processing. Infrastructure for small scale decentralised millet processing that is affordable and easy to use for farmers, FPOs and consumers should be encouraged to improve efficiency, quality control, generate off-farm opportunities by enabling cultivators to also engage in value addition of millets and thereby earn profits.
NITI Aayog’s pilot project decentralised production, processing and procurement initiative in three Aspirational districts of Telangana (KB Asifabad, B Kotagudem, JS Bhupalapally/ Mulugu) and resulted in bringing millets back in around 1,000 acres of project area and provision of various millets dishes to ICDS beneficiaries twice a week.
Organisations like IIMR, CFTRI, ICRISAT, ICAR and CGIAR are enabling a conducive ecosystem by conducting research and development, capacity building skill development programs and technology transfer and developing innovative millet-based products like millet biscuits, pasta, dosa idli mix, ice-creams etc to improve the production and productivity efficiency of millets. Lastly, there is a need to sensitise all relevant stakeholders to ensure jan andolan for millets.
Millets has the potential to help us achieve SDGs like SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production), and SDG 13 (Climate Action).
Our Prime Minister has envisioned to give millets a respectable status both nationally and globally, which has aptly been acknowledged by the government by terming millets as Shree Anna, which means food grains which have divine grace. With the International Year of Millets celebrated this year, let us position India as a global hub of millets.
(Vedeika Shekhar is Associate, Women and Child Development, NITI Aayog. Views are personal).