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Can India's push for millets start a food revolution?

With 2023 declared as the UN International Year of Millets, several events and activities are expected to be rolled out across India aimed at spreading awareness about the ancient grain.

The humble millet is believed to have been around for about 7,000 years. In India, archaeological evidence suggests their consumption dates as far back as the great Indus Valley Civilization era.

Millets are essentially a group of small-grained cereals like sorghum (known in India as jowar), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi/ mandua), foxtail millet (kangni/ Italian millet) and many others.

The millets are cultivated in at least 130 countries but have generally been relegated to the sidelines by the popularity of rice and wheat.

Ancient crops, with an edge

However, millets have several advantages over their more popular cousins. Millets can grow on arid lands with minimal inputs and are resilient to changes in climate, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is leading this year's millet celebrations.

"They are therefore an ideal solution for countries to increase self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on imported cereal grains," said the UN agency.

Millets also appear to have a nutritional advantage. The FAO says they are naturally gluten-free and are a low-cost but rich source of fiber, antioxidants, minerals, proteins and iron.

They could be a "great food option for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, high-blood sugar or diabetes," according to the FAO.

Big potential but multiple challenges

Millets are primarily grown in Asia and Africa, with India being the top producer followed by Niger, China and Nigeria.

India's share in total production of millets in the world in 2022 was 39%, followed by Niger (11%), China (9%) and Nigeria (7%), according to the US department of agriculture.

But while India's share of global millet production is significant, the figure is perhaps less so when compared with its yields of wheat and paddy.

According to data from India's federal agriculture ministry, India produced around 17 million tonnes of millet in 2020-21 — while the country generated more than 231 million tonnes of paddy and wheat during the same period.

Making the switch

Millet production will need to be ramped up if people are expected to ditch rice and wheat in favor of the ancient grain alternative.

Harvir Singh, who edits the agriculaural website Rural Voice, feels that the Indian government has put little effort behind its campaign.

"When the government wants to popularize something, it launches a mission for that objective, which has set goals and a budgetary allocation," Singh told DW. "But in the case of millets, no such mission has been announced so far."

Price is also a factor. In the commodity markets of India's western state of Maharashtra, ragi was selling at about €43 ($45) per quintal (100 kilos), while wheat was selling for around €29 per quintal.

On the retail market, ragi flour is almost two-and-a-half times the price of wheat flour.

Reducing the price of millets will require increasing the amount of land used to grow them. But farmers are not keen to make the switch to millets, considering that millions are already struggling to make a living with their paddy and wheat crops.

A decade-old push

India's push to popularize millets has been in the works since at least 2012-13, when the government-mandated support price (MSP) for millets was raised higher than that of the country's staple foodgrain crops of paddy and wheat.

But the MSP is just one cog in the giant wheel of India's agricultural system. Another important factor is public procurement, or the purchase of agricultural products from farmers by the government.

Data provided by Food Corporation of India (FCI), the agency responsible for public procurement, shows that the government's purchase of millets has been negligible.

FCI's foodgrain stock figures show a stock of 119,000 tonnes of millets — compared to over 16 million tonnes of paddy and more than 15 million tonnes of wheat.

However, the sheer magnitude of the benefits of millets has enthused many and they want the federal government to do more.

Agriculture policy analyst Devinder Sharma said he has met several farmers across many states who grow millets, but even with the new MSP, their earnings have not increased.

"The current MSP is too low," Sharma told DW. "Millets require a virtually negligible amount of water, are an instrument of crop diversification and have multiple health benefits. The government should consider these factors and raise the MSP significantly."

He also dismissed the argument that millets are expensive and said that people who can buy a cup of coffee at restaurants for nearly €4 can easily spend about €1 for a kilo of ragi.

Sharma believes people have already developed an interest in millets and clever marketing campaigns can help boost consumption of the ancient, humble grain.

Edited by: Keith Walker