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Millets for Health

To reap the maximum nutritional benefits from millets, it is essential to encourage their use as staple food. Government policy and entrepreneurs need to take responsibility for ensuring that this does not remain as just a fad food but truly becomes a part of mainstream food habits



‘The growing millet does not fear the sun.’

Acholi Proverb Millets (or Mota Anaj) are a highly varied group of small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for human food and fodder. Most species generally referred to as millets belong to the tribe Paniceae, but some millets also belong to various other taxa. These are important crops in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa (especially in south India, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger), with 97 per cent of millet production in developing countries, because they are highly tolerant of drought and extreme weather conditions. This crop is favoured due to its productivity and short growing season under dry, high-temperature conditions. Moreover, millets contain an incredible nutrient–rich composition.

Enriched with the goodness of nature, millets are a rich source of fiber, minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, iron, calcium, zinc and potassium. These are not only nutritious but also they have a unique taste, which can accentuate the taste quotient of any meal. These unrefined seeds are increasingly becoming more popular and are on the verge of a revival. From being referred to as ‘coarse cereals’, these miracle foods have been given a facelift and were notified by the Government of India as ‘Nutri-cereals’ in April 2018. India also celebrated 2018 as the National Year of Millets to boost production of the nutrient-rich millets and the sunrise agri-industry.

Millets are considered as the food of the poor due to their ability to grow even in the most marginalized lands. These are cereals that can be grown by everyone and eaten by everyone, unlike paddy or wheat which need more fertile lands and more focus on irrigation and crop management. They are also ideal for rain-fed conditions and saline soils. Millet cultivation under rainfed farming still provides livelihood to nearly half of the rural and tribal population and sustains about 60 per cent of India’s livestock. These are often used as multipurpose crops which support food, fodder and fuel needs and they lend themselves to intercropping with other plants, sustaining a richly diverse agricultural ecosystem. Millets have seen rising popularity after India recognised these to be sustainable solutions to food insecurity vis-à-vis nutritional insecurity.

To keep this momentum going, the 75th session of the United Nations Assembly, at the behest of the Government of India, declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYOM). The objectives of such declaration are: (1) to raise awareness of the contribution of millets to Food Security; (2) to inspire stakeholders to improve sustainable production and quality of millets; and (3) to focus on enhanced investment in research and development, to achieve the other two aims.

Once a staple in traditional Indian cooking, millets fell out of favour. They are making a slow comeback in India and across the world. The various crop species called millets were domesticated in different parts of the world most notably East Asia, South Asia, West Africa, and East Africa. Sorghum cultivation extends back to about 3000 BC in northern and eastern Africa. It is now the fourth largest cereal crop. Its wild ancestors include several sub-species that persist in the wild on African savannas. In India, it is widely grown as jowar in the north and cholam in the south. The centers of early domestication of major cereals were the sites of other cultivated grasses as well, the most notable being proso millet and foxtail millet in Asia, and pearl millet and finger millet in India and Africa. In Ethiopia small millet is the staple food.

Little millet is believed to have been domesticated around 5000 years ago, in the Indian subcontinent and Kodo millet around 3700 years ago, also in this region. Various millets have been mentioned in some of the Yajurveda texts, which identify foxtail millet, barnyard millet and black finger millet, indicating that millet cultivation was happening around 1200 BEC in India. Indeed, millets formed important parts of the prehistoric diet in India, Chinese Neolithic and Korean societies. Chinese myths attribute the domestication of millet to Shennong, a legendary emperor of China, and Hou Ji, whose name means Lord Millet.

The renewed interest in millets has been sparked by a multitude of reasons. In the current changing agro-climatic narrative across the world, it is essential that agricultural policies see a shift from existing practices. Climate change is now impacting agricultural production, food stability and nutritional security. Increasing temperatures, erratic rainfall and prolonged droughts are having notably severe impacts on plant growth, causing shorter grain-filling periods, reduced yield and biomass. Also, one abiotic stress is leading to another ~ high temperature, for instance, causes rapid evaporation, resulting in soil dryness and limited water availability for plants, lowering their nutrient uptake. Indian agriculture is experiencing the severity of climate change. A study published in June 2018 has found that in the coming years there will be a reduction of various cereal crops due to climate change. The only crops that could withstand these vagaries and not see a negative impact on yield are millets.

Since the Green Revolution in the 1960s, rice and wheat took over as major planting systems along with other cash crops like cotton, soybean and maize. However, these crops demand higher water. Millets require only onethird of the water needed to grow rice, wheat, and sugarcane. The latter also need more fertilizers and pesticides, whereas millets can grow well in relatively arid environments with less irrigation and fewer inputs. These anatomically superior C4 crops have higher photosynthetic efficiency ~ their potential yields remain unaffected by elevated CO2 levels compared to C3 crops like rice and wheat. These qualities make millets truly climate resilient.

Joanna Kane-Potaka, Assistant Director General, ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) & Executive Director General, Smart Food says, “Millets have a double value in tackling climate change because they contribute to both adaptation and mitigation. Millets survive in much higher temperatures than most crops and can survive with much less water (one-fourth of the water required by rice). Their overall resilience makes them climate smart and (are) a good adaptation strategy for farmers. Millets also are formed with minimal fertilizers and pesticides, so they have a lower carbon footprint. Millets compared to rice reduce (by) GHGs 2 to 13 per cent. This makes them good for the farmer and planet. Add this to their high nutrition value, making them good for you, millets are truly a Smart Food with a triple win and triple bottom line. The biggest gap is building consumer awareness.” Millets, which include sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), barnyard, foxtail, brown top and other varieties, are termed as a ‘supergrain’ with good reason. These crops are rich sources of macronutrients and micro nutrients, with higher levels of calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, protein and essential amino acids. These also have a low glycemic index (GI) property which, unlike rice and wheat, can help prevent the occurrence of Type 2 diabetics. In addition, their nutrients can help avert cardiovascular diseases, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve gut health. A study by ICRISAT published in September 2019, conducted on 1,500 children in Karnataka, found that children grew up to 50 per cent more in weight and height parameters on millet-based diets. This finding clearly highlights the significant potential of millets for overcoming nutritional deficiencies.

Millets are also being hailed as the solution for many lifestyle diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, gluten allergies, and much more. There are inspiring stories of diabetes reversal, children on the autism spectrum benefiting from a millet-based diet and even cancer survivors who have felt the benefits of these miracle foods.

Millets have a rich cultural history in India, having long been a source of nutrition for the poor. There are many customs and rituals during which millets were made mandatory.

This could be due to the health benefits experienced by our ancestors who then incorporated them into customs. For example, finger millets or Madua Rotis are traditionally eaten by women in eastern Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand before beginning a three-day long fast for the welfare of their children. Millets have found their way into songs sung by women during sowing and harvesting crops.

To reap the maximum nutritional benefits from millets, it is essential to encourage their use as staple food. Government policy and entrepreneurs need to take responsibility for ensuring that this does not remain as just a fad food but truly becomes a part of mainstream food habits.

As our knowledge of these ancient grains grows, the ICAR and IIMR (Indian Institute of Millets Research) shall continue developing high-yielding sorghum, pearl millet and small millet varieties. Since Independence, over 300 improved millet cultivars have been developed. We need to continue to provide more sustainable choices in an era of climate change.

(The writer is a retired IAS office)