With growing needs for food due to population growth, millets present an opportunity globally to ensure sustainable food security
Millets have been an integral part of Indian agriculture for centuries. But with the advent of modern agriculture and the green revolution, these groups of small-grained cereals were pushed to the margins in favour of high-yielding crops. Millets are nutrient-dense, climate-resilient, and have the potential to play a key role in ensuring food security and sustainable agriculture in India. This has prompted the industry's major FMCG players to incorporate millets into their product lines and devise solutions for making millets more mainstream.
Another reason for bringing millets to the forefront is India’s food security crisis, as the population of the country continues to increase at a rapid rate. The impact of climate change on food production and food systems is profound. The nutritious value of our food is declining as agricultural output is unable to keep up with demand and a lack of biodiversity. Additionally, consumers' eating habits and diets have completely changed. In the last few decades, there has been a clear shift towards refined, processed, packaged, and ready-to-eat food.
The scenario started changing again in the last decade. The prevalence of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease (CHD), which are primarily affecting urban population, is rising, and millets are once again in demand given their nutritional value. Furthermore, according to IMD, there is a 70% probability of El Nino occurring during June, July, and August. This will lead to a warming of surface water in the Pacific Ocean and is associated with a rainfall deficit and drought in India, causing a scarcity in staple crops.
Millets, being a heat-tolerant crop, do not require much water to grow. With growing needs for food due to population growth, millets presented an opportunity globally to ensure sustainable food security. To cater to the growing demand for sustainable food options, key FMCG players must focus on building high-quality millet-based products that are both affordable and accessible to consumers.
Driving affordability and accessibility of millet-based products is critical to build large-scale adoption of millets. Investment in research and development is required to create innovative millet-based products that appeal to a wide range of taste preferences and dietary needs pan India. At the same time, there is a need to change consumer perception about millets and make them cool. It can be enabled through effective marketing campaigns and messaging that highlight the benefits and versatility of millets. By making millets mainstream and popular, FMCG players can tap into a rapidly growing market of health-conscious consumers who are looking for continuous healthy food choices.
To promote the importance and quality of millets, 2023 is declared the International Year of Millets by the United Nations. This has brought the public and private sectors of India together to increase the consumption of millets, which directly affects inflation in the country. While crops like wheat and rice are being imported, millets are a crop that doesn’t require abundant water and fertilisers to grow, making it a sustainable crop for consumption.
In a study titled "Millets: a solution to agrarian and nutritional challenges," which was published in the journal Agriculture and Food Security, it was found that by the turn of the century, the less fertile soils in dryland, where about 40% of the world's population lives, are expected to rise by 50% to 56%.
To combat this, the Union Budget included provisions for millet outreach, such as designating the Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR) in Hyderabad as a Centre of Excellence (CoE) for the exchange of best practices, technologies, and millet-related research. Along with wheat and rice, the Centre also announced MSPs (minimum support prices) for millets, including jowar, bajra, and ragi.
Traditional millet recipes like millet roti and millet khichdi already exist at the regional level. In addition, many creative recipes are being developed professionally in hotels, bakeries, and even at home, including millet dosa, millet idli, pancakes, millet bread, waffles, crispy crumbs in salad, and cookies. FMCG manufacturers have also started adding millets to products in highly penetrated packaged food & beverage categories like breakfast cereals, savoury snacks, biscuits, confectionery, noodles & health drinks. New ideas to improve its palatability and acceptability by all age groups will enable it to fulfil the goal of zero hunger by 2030, a key element of India's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, millet farming can play a crucial role in sustainable agriculture and make farmers prosperous.
Millets are a crucial component of the G-20 gatherings as well, giving attendees a first-hand millet experience through tasting, meeting farmers, and engaging in discussions with start-ups and FPOs. The Year of Millets only lasts this year, but with a sustained effort by the Centre and state governments, along with the industry, it can keep interest high, both in terms of demand and supply.
(Prashant Parameswaran is MD and CEO, Tata Soulfull .)