Demand is slowly increasing for various types of millets that require very little water to grow. Scientists say that millet cultivation needs to be further encouraged to adapt to global warming that leads to losses in crop yields
“There is a marked improvement in our health and stamina after we reverted to a millet diet from rice a few years back,” says Mallika of Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. “The demand for millets has steadily increased in the last three years,” says Jayakumar, a retailer of organic products.
Minor millets — foxtail millet, little millet, kodo millet, proso millet and barnyard millet —as well as the major millets sorghum (great millet), bajra (pearl millet) and ragi (finger millet) are increasingly being included in the food basket of rural and urban households. They cost less than rice or wheat, and keep you healthier. They also need less water to grow and can tolerate higher temperatures, crucial for farmers in this era of climate change.
Droughts, heat waves, cloudbursts, flash floods are all on the rise, especially in India. In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said this is due to global warming. It is already affecting food production adversely, and this will get worse. Climate change is also bringing about indirect losses. Increase in average atmospheric temperature increases the growth period of a crop in cooler climates. Varying rainfall patterns change soil moisture, which in turn affects yield.
Researchers from University of British Columbia and McGill University analysed production records of 16 cereals across 177 countries over a 50-year period. They found that the production of maize, wheat and rice had decreased by 10% due to changing weather. The crop production loss was double in recent years than in the 1980s, due to increased warming.
Kavi Kumar of Madras School of Economics says that in recent years, Tamil Nadu loses 4,000 tonnes of kharif (summer) rice due to climate change every year. Chakravarthula Manoharachary of Osmania University says that rabi (winter) crops, wheat in particular, are also hit by climate change. With every one degree Celsius rise in temperature, wheat production is reduced by 4 to 5 million tonnes.
Crop pest data since 1822 analysed at the University of Exeter show crop pests spreading to newer latitudes as the temperature goes up. Manoharachary adds that water required to grow maize is projected to rise over the years, as per a study done in three Indian states.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has stated that agricultural production has to be increased by 70% by 2050 to feed the earth’s growing population. However, all the studies and factors indicate that growing rice and wheat to feed the globe will not be feasible, as temperatures rise and water resources dwindle.
Millets to the rescue
Millets, the yesteryear staple diet of a majority of people in the semi-arid regions of Asia, especially India, could be the climate-resilient future crop. Millets can counter many of the adverse effects of climate change better than most other food crops. They grow in almost any type of soil – sandy or with varying levels of acidity. They hardly need any fertilisers or irrigation.
Govindaraj M, scientist at the Millet Breeding programme of Hyderabad-based International Crops Research institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), says that even among the sand dunes of Rajasthan, where other cereals are likely to fail, millets grow well. Millets have an efficient root system that captures the moisture needed even from erratic rainfall of about 350-400 mm a year, received over a few days.
Millets are highly tolerant to increased temperatures, droughts and floods. According to Uttarakhand farmers, only millets survived the 2009 drought. Also, millets recover quickly from these weather-related stresses.
According to Dayakar Rao, principal scientist at Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR), Hyderabad, millets are generally resilient to pests. However, shoot fly attack has been noticed if planting is delayed due to delay in the onset of monsoon. Kuppusamy, a farmer from Tamil Nadu’s Jawadhu Hills, says they are able to control pests with cow derivatives and neem-based natural pesticides.
Millets are rich in nutrients. While the iron content of barnyard millet is 15.2 mg, that of rice is 0.7 mg. Calcium content of foxtail millet is 31 mg, that of rice 10 mg. While the percentage of nutrients varies with each variety of millet, in general they are richer in calcium, iron, beta-carotene etc. than rice and wheat. Millets are rich in dietary fibre, which is negligible in rice. With no gluten and low glycaemic index, millet diet is ideal for those with celiac diseases and diabetes.
Suitable for mixed and intercropping, crops like maize and broad bean, grown with millets, offer food and livelihood security to farmers. Kuppusamy says that farmers in Jawadhu Hills grow a little millet and vegetables commercially and grow foxtail and kodo millets in a small area for their own consumption.
Ability to sequester carbon
As millets have more tillers or branches than corn and sorghum, they provide better fodder too. Millet crops also have a good ability to sequester carbon and so help climate adaptation, considering the water needs and methane emission of rice fields.
With rice and wheat enjoying minimum support price and promotion through the public distribution system (PDS), rice consumption increased in India. With shrinking market for millets, farmers switched over to rice and wheat. As per government statistics, from a maximum area of 47.34 million hectare in 1967 to 25.67 million hectare in 2013, acreage under minor millets diminished by 46%. In addition, government subsidies were for irrigated crops and not rain-fed crops. Another deterrent was the difficulty women faced in processing millets manually.
When M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) began working in Kolli Hills, a majority of the farmers had shifted to tapioca. MSSRF scientist E.D. Israel Oliver King says they sourced seeds from small, remote pockets that remained strongholds of traditional millet farming. “Due to MSSRF’s intervention, we have community seed banks, maintained by women. The machines given by MSSRF help us process the millets easily and get a better price,” says farmer Chinnathambi.
According to Govindaraj, the malnutrition problem is more severe in India than in western and central African countries where traditional millets are still eaten regularly. To address malnutrition, ICRISAT, with the support of food fortification firm HarvestPlus, has introduced a bio-fortified, early-maturing pearl millet called Dhanashakti. Binu Cherian, India Country Manager of HarvestPlus, says that bio-fortified millets are primarily targeted at subsistence farmers whose micronutrient intake is low. Clinical researches have shown that 300 gm of Dhanashakti meets 100% Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron.
M.S. Swaminathan, father of India’s Green Revolution and chairperson of MSSRF, says inclusion of millets in PDS, under the National Food Security Act, 2013, is part of the efforts to promote millets. But the scheme is yet to be implemented.
While promoting millets, it has to be ensured that millets do not follow the monoculture route, especially in subsistence farming, cautions Oliver King. IIMR has developed many value-added products from millets. Dayakar Rao says processed food industries should focus more on millet products to promote consumption.
Millets can be the wonder crop providing food, nutrition and livelihood security, beating the adverse effects of climate change. All they need is support from policymakers.