Noida: The year 2023 was declared as the International Year of Millets by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). #IYOM2023, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls it, will be an opportunity to raise awareness about the nutritional benefits of millets and its suitability for cultivation under adverse conditions.

Millets are hardy grains suitable for semi-arid conditions, making them the perfect crop for areas where water management is a concern. Most varieties contain more protein than rice, and they are superior to both rice and wheat in terms of iron content.

India was instrumental in bringing international recognition for these crops. Celebrating the launch of the initiative, Minister for Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar said on November 24, at a pre-launch event for #IYOM2023, that the focus would provide an opportunity to increase global production, efficient processing and better use of crop rotation, and promote millets as a major component of the food basket.

While some varieties like jowar are a staple in diets in rural India, in many parts of the world millets are used as animal feed or birdseed.

But despite India having a long tradition of consuming millets, consumption of pearl millet or bajra fell by 67% in urban and 59% in rural areas between 1972-73 and 2004-05. Another study estimates that maize and millets like jowar, bajra, and ragi went from contributing 23% of the cereal requirements of Indians in 1983 to 6% in 2011.

Source of protein, micronutrients, drought-resilient superfoods: experts

Bajra, jowar and ragi--some of the millets commonly consumed in India--have almost four times the iron contained in brown rice, and thrice the folic acid per serving. Bajra, or pearl millets, are the cheapest source of protein, making them suitable for combating malnutrition.

Millets are gluten free, making them suitable for those with celiac disease (a disease in which a person is unable to digest wheat). They are also easy to cook and incorporate into cereal-based diets. "It is an excellent replacement for rice since it offers a very similar texture and has a lower glycemic index, making it a healthier alternative," said Chirag Makwana, head chef at Toast and Tonic, a Bengaluru restaurant that offers several millet-based dishes on the menu. They are high in fibre, rich in essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, naturally gluten-free, non-allergenic, and easily digestible, he added.

Vegetable kibbeh (a fried dumpling from Syria and Lebanon) and bajra ricotta gnudi (a type of pasta)

Besides the obvious nutritional advantages, millet cultivation requires 33% less water than rice. Since they predate modern irrigation and evolved along with the climate of the areas in which they are grown, they are more resilient to local conditions and require less water and fertiliser, explained Dinesh Balam, associate director at Watershed Support and Activities Network and Program Officer at the government's Odisha Millets Mission (OMM). "Millets mature faster and are ready for harvest in a shorter time than wheat and rice, and are resistant to diseases."

Given their drought-resistance, domestication of millets may have aided the process of settled agriculture: Scientists have found evidence of the common millet (panicum miliaceum or proso millet) in storage pits from 8,700 years ago in China.

Production increasing, no increase in consumption patterns

In a bid to reverse the trend of lowering consumption of millets, India in 2018 declared the National Year of Millets to promote the production and consumption of millets or nutri-cereals. Production of millets increased from 14.52 million tonnes in 2015-16 to 17.96 million tonnes in 2020-21.

"We procure millets from farmers, many of whom are women, at the minimum support price and provide it to people as their PDS [Public Distribution System for food] entitlements. In this way, we promote cultivation and consumption of millets along with female empowerment," said Prem Chandra Choudhury, Director of Agriculture and Food Production, Government of Odisha. The programme, which started with seven districts, now covers 19 of the 30 districts in the state, he added.

"We aim to increase urban and household consumption of millets by 25% in the coming years," said Balam. "We have increased consumption by 15% so far." The next step, he said, was to involve restaurants, food vendors and women's self-help groups to market millet-based products.

A 2011 paper found that although millet consumption had declined in India, it was still a staple of rural diets in parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra. The consumption estimates are based on the results of the consumer expenditure survey, which was last conducted in 2011, therefore recent data on millet consumption are not available. IndiaSpend has written to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs as well as the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation to ask about millet consumption in India. This story will be updated when they respond.

While Karnataka has a dedicated millet promotion initiative, Maharashtra plans to study the one implemented by Odisha, which has a comprehensive plan that includes increasing household consumption, conserving landraces and introducing millets in the Integrated Child Development Scheme, PDS, Mid-Day Meals, etc.

Under the National Food Security Mission on Nutri Cereals, millets were supposed to be provided under the PDS, similar to how it is done in states like Karnataka and Odisha. States were allowed to procure and disburse millets under PDS in 2014, and revised guidelines for procurement and disbursement were notified in December 2021 under which millets were to be provided to PDS beneficiaries at Rs 1 per kg. Reportedly, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka have started the disbursal of millets under the PDS.

IndiaSpend has written to the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs to inquire about the progress of implementation of the National Food Security Mission on Nutri Cereals. This story will be updated when a response is received.

The path ahead for millets

The Bengaluru restaurant Toast and Tonic's experiment with millets has met with a positive response, according to Chef Makwana. "People choose dishes with these ingredients over the regular dishes a lot of the time, and it's a very positive thing."

While Toast and Tonic is an upscale restaurant, at the other end of the price spectrum, Odisha introduced millet tiffin centres, whose numbers went up from 15 in 2020 to 81 in 2021. The OMM is also working with a team of 25 restaurants to develop millet-based dishes, and engaging Gram Panchayats in villages to market and promote small packs of millet-based products that can be added to regular flour and rice for preparing rotis, chapatis, etc., according to Balam.

"We intend to provide consumers with millet products in every price range, with biscuits that cost Rs 3 to meals in restaurants that cost Rs 200," he added.

Market-oriented production will be a part of the Make in Odisha initiative, said Choudhury. "The men's hockey World Cup (which begins on January 13 in Odisha) will also be used to promote the grains, and we will map the sustainable development goals to the millet mission as there is a significant overlap."

Chef Makwana hopes that the global focus on millets in 2023, thanks to the UNGA resolution, will give an impetus to the usage and consumption of millets worldwide. "It is going to drive a greater variety of packaged and ready-to-eat foods both in India and globally," he said.

Correction: The earlier version of this story incorrectly said maize was a millet. The study that estimated the consumption of millets in 1983 and 2011, also included maize, to understand how wheat and rice were replacing other crops.

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