Already caught in a vicious cycle of debt and declining yields, Indian farmers now face new challenges from climate change. The Ministry of Earth Science, in a 2020 report, predicts, “Rising temperatures, heat extremes, and increasing year-to-year rainfall variability are likely to adversely impact crop yield.”

India’s Green Revolution of the 1960s introduced monocrops of high-yielding paddy and wheat. At the time, such practices were seen as the only way to achieve food production targets. This led to a major dependence on irrigation and chemical inputs, in turn degrading the land, depleting groundwater and reducing agro-biodiversity.

A rapid transition to the climate resilient crops that preceded the Green Revolution – crops that are less vulnerable to rainfall and temperature variabilities – can be the cornerstone of a strategy to protect the livelihoods of small farmers and revitalise the land. Millets should be considered an essential component of a national strategy to do just that.

Millets are a diverse family of small-grained cereals, indigenous to various parts of India. For centuries, they have been key to the nutritional strength and health of the land and diversity of its cultures. Before the Green Revolution, millets were one of the largest grown staples in India, cultivated on 37 million hectares of land. Now, down to 14 million hectares, millets have been reduced to a marginal fodder crop to feed livestock.

Yet, millets are just what is needed in the fields and on the table. They require low irrigation and chemical inputs, are drought resilient, can grow in poor soil conditions, barren hillsides and have short growing seasons. They can be stored for long with ease and are nutritionally superior to rice and wheat, with higher fibre and mineral profiles. Following a steady decline over the past five decades, there is resurgent interest in the potential of millets as a staple crop.

The 2018 Millet Mission, and state schemes such as the Odisha Millet Mission, point to policy actions supporting the revival of the crop. The United Nations in March 2021 adopted India’s proposal to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Fast-emerging organic food brands are further helping mainstream millet consumption.

Yet, more is needed. The Indian Institute of Millets Research estimates that there is a need to increase millet production by at least 40%. At 14 million tonnes per year, millets are a fraction of India’s cereal production. Wheat and rice outputs are at over 210 million tonnes.

From the standpoint of a typical small farmer, who must choose between a cash crop such as paddy, with guaranteed procurement, versus millets, that are presumed to be difficult to grow and market, the transition may not be viable just yet.

In Mandla in Madhya Pradesh India, a farmer said that while his family has eaten kodo, a nutritious millet variety, for generations, he has given it up in favour of cultivating rice. While the market demand from kodo might be increasing, his waterlogged rice farm is unable to grow the quantity required for a stable income.

Due to the efforts of non-governmental organisations such as PRADAN, the farmer wishes to make the switch, but does not have the capacity. Such farmers should be enabled and for that, the transition back to millets should be subsidised.

The Public Distribution System provides essential food supplies to an estimated 67% of the country’s population. Backed by the minimum support prices-led public procurement, it is an effective catalyst for the cultivation of chosen crops. While the Millets Mission has led to the inclusion of grain in the public distribution system, quotas are small.

Millet and jaggery biscuits. Credit: Nandhinikandhasamy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Such a major transition, however, will take more than subsidies. It will also require educating farmers and equipping them to cultivate in ways that were once commonplace. A survey across five states by teams at the Delhi-based Vertiver and Iora Ecological Solutions revealed that most farmers are unaware that millets are procured at the minimum support price.

Access to millet seeds, especially the high yielding varieties, is also a challenge. For millets to take root again, wide dissemination of its minimum support price procurement, along with enhanced seed supply and cultivation knowledge through extension channels is necessary. Training on millet processing should also be provided.

On the consumer front, millets are a cultivated taste. A survey of 300 urban consumers indicated that while there is awareness about the health benefits of millets, most still prefer the convenience of wheat and rice. Millets are not easily available at local suppliers either. While 72% of the consumers ate wheat and 58% ate rice daily, only 20% consumed millets. In part, this is because millet-based snacks are not yet a strong substitute for cheaper and seemingly tastier alternatives.

To increase the demand for millets, researchers have to make a stronger case for their nutritional benefits to consumers worried about immunity and health, especially in the post-pandemic world.

Millets must not only be promoted as elite grains for the urban, health conscious consumer. To underscore the nutritional potential of millets for middle and lower income groups, the grain should be included in the anganwadi midday meal scheme or the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, which supplies free grains to the poor.

At the same time, policymakers should be wary of replacing the paddy and wheat monocropping regime with single variety millets. The point of promoting a transition to millets is that their diversity matters as much as their sustainability.

Many varieties of millets, suited to different agro-ecological zones have been documented. These need to be promoted and diverse seed banks created to ensure the availability of planting material. The public distribution system currently focuses only on three varieties. Introducing a minimum support price for the other varieties is imperative.

Promoting millet cultivation at scale can not only help secure livelihood of farmers in the face of climate change, but might go a long way in saving their lives. A comprehensive policy response that incentivises farmers, builds strong market linkages, and encourages biodiversity is urgently needed.

Swapan Mehra is a Bacon Environmental Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.