The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets.
31st Jan 2023
The Hindu (31-Jan-23)
Tasks for India’s millet revolution
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets.
- Millets have special nutritive properties (they are high in protein, dietary fibre, micronutrients and antioxidants) and special agronomic characteristics (drought resistant and suitable for semiarid regions).
- If millets are good for nutrition and are climate resilient, what then are the constraints to increased millet cultivation and consumption?
Millet production in India
- Two groups of millets are grown in India. Major millets include sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet, while minor millets include foxtail, little millet, kodo, proso, and barnyard millet.
- In 201920, the total off take of cereals through the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and also school meals were around 54 million tonnes.
- If about 20% of rice and wheat were to be replaced by millet, the state would have to procure 10.8 million tonnes of millet.
- In 201920, the total production of nutri-cereals (earlier called coarse cereals) was 47.7 million tonnes. The bulk of this was maize (28.8 million tonnes), a nonmillet crop used mainly as feed (M.S. Swaminathan had suggested that coarse cereals be replaced by nutri-cereals).
- The production of sorghum (4.8 million tonnes), pearl millet (10.4 million tonnes), and finger millet along with other millets (3.7 million tonnes) put together was 18.9 million tonnes.
- With this production, the inclusion of millets in the PDS would only be feasible if more than 50% production were procured — an unlikely scenario.
- Currently, millets are procured in only a few States, and stocks in the central pool are small. InMay 2022, central stocks had 33 million tonnes ofrice and 31 million tonnes of wheat, but only four lakh tonnes of nutri-cereals.
Barriers in millet production
- The real problems are: first, the decline in thearea under millet cultivation, and, second, the low productivity of millets.
- Over the last decade, the production of sorghum (jowar) has fallen, the production of pearl millet (bajra) hasstagnated, and the production of other millets, including finger millet (ragi), has stagnated or declined.
- The productivity of jowar and bajra has increased, but only marginally. The average yield of jowar was 957 kg per hectare in 201112 and 989 kg per hectare in 201920. The yield of bajrawas 1,079 kg per ha in 201011 and 1,237 kg per hain 201718.
- Unless productivity and production are increased substantially, all exhortations to consume millets will come to naught.
Change in the kolli hills
- The millet project of the MSSRF had three objectives — to preserve crop diversity in local millet varieties; to increase production and theconsumption of millets, and to enhance farm incomes.
- The Kolli hills block of Namakkal district, the project area, is a distinct geographic and agroecological region of the Eastern Ghats, populated by income poor Scheduled Tribe households.
- There has been a rapid decline in minor millet cultivation, and a shift in land use toward more profitable crops such as cassava (tapioca), pineapple, coffee, and pepper.
- As the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) haspointed out, the area under nutri-cereals has declined steeply in India since the mid1980s —from 41 million hectares in the 1980s to 24 million hectares in 201718.
- The reasons for a shift in land use include low yields. Further, processing of millets is a time-consuming and laborious task, undertaken by women. Additionally, very little was marketed, and a tiny share of grain was processed into value-added products.
- The project intervened in three areas. First, yield enhancement was attempted, using acombination of participatory varietal trials forimproved seeds, new agronomic practices, andnew technology. Community seed banks weredesigned and constructed to conserve, restore,revive, strengthen, and improve local seedsystems.
- Second, customised postharvest machinery (pulverisers and dehullers) was introduced. Handpounding millet by women for a houryielded 2 kg3 kg of grain (all millets other than finger millet have a hard seed coat that requires abrasive force to remove the starch from the seed coat). The introduction of small-scale localised mechanical milling, operated by self-help groups, was a gamechanger.
- The third major initiative was training. The Kolli Hills Agro biodiversity Conservers’ Federation (KHABCOFED) was formed to oversee all activities towards training and value addition.
- Readytocook products were branded under the Kolli Hills Natural Foods label and market links established. Net returns from value-added products were five to 10 times higher than from grain: a kilogram of little millet rice sold for ₹7, a kilogram of millet upma sells for ₹41.
- The most significant outcome of the last 25 years has been that the decline in the area undercultivation of minor millets and finger millet atthe block level has been stemmed, and, indeed, has increased gradually after 201415, although the acreage is still one-third of acreage in theearly 2000s.
- Yields have raised as a result ofimproved seeds, agronomic practices and intercropping. There have been significant improvements in incomes from millet farming.
- The shift from hand pounding to milling has reduced the drudgery for women and encouraged millet consumption. The number of private mills with customised dehullers and pulverisers has risen (and the technology has been marketed to Krishi Vigyan Kendras across Tamil Nadu).
The economics is the issue
- The most difficult outcomes to measure are changes in consumption and nutrition. A rapid sample study in 2021 showed that persons of allages ate millet for nine days per month. Fifteen years earlier, a different study showed that 39% of households consumed millets regularly. Availability is one factor here, but so are changing food habits.
- Increasing the production of millets and reversing the decline in are a cultivated are feasible steps but not easy, and require multiple interventions including scientific inputs, institutional mechanisms, financial incentives and in-kind support.
- The Governmentof India and State governments, notably Karnataka and Odisha, have initiated Millet Missions. These policies are welcome, but unlesswe pay attention to the economics of milletcultivation, we face a losing battle against more profitable alternatives.
- Small farmers in hilly regions and dry land plains, who are among the poorest households in rural India, are going to cultivate millets only if it gives them good returns.
- Adequate public support can make millet cultivation profitable, ensure supply for the PDS, and, ultimately, provide nutritional benefits to a wide section of the population.
31st Jan 2023
The Hindu (31-Jan-23)
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