When India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Union Budget in February, she referred to millets as “shri anna” or the best of all grains. Her rebranding of millets – often derogatorily referred to as the ‘poor man’s grain’ and listed as a neglected and underutilised crop species not long ago – was accompanied by the promise of government funding for the Hyderabad-based Indian Institute of Millet Research, which was established in 1958. Though there is no clarity on the amount of funding, Sitharaman said Indian Institute of Millet Research will become a centre of excellence and a global hub for millet research and development.

This and other efforts around promoting millets are linked to the UN’s declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets.

So how does a neglected crop, which all but vanished from our plates, make a comeback?

What are millets?

Millet refers to several varieties of small-seeded grasses that are cultivated as grain crops. Amongst these, pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi) and sorghum (jowar) are the most popular. Pearl millet accounts for close to half the global millet output. Minor millets include foxtail, barnyard, proso and others. These crops are grown in marginal and dry lands in several countries in Asia and Africa, with India being the world’s largest millet producer.

Farmers from Andhra Pradesh harvesting the sorghum crop. Credit: Stevie Mann/The International Livestock Research Institute/Wikimedia Commons

The sudden global fame of this coarse grain can be traced back to March 2021, when the United Nations General Assembly at its 75th session declared 2023 the International Year of Millets.

Jacqueline Hughes, director general of International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, said, as the world becomes increasingly aware of the negative impacts of climate change, millets are gaining attention as “future crops”. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics led the technical session at the launch of the International Year of Millets 2023 at Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome in December, and recently hosted a global conference on transformations of drylands.

Hughes explained in an email interview with Mongabay-India, that millets are adapted to the drylands and can grow in very difficult conditions. Since they are hardy, salinity-tolerant, and can grow in drought-prone environments with poor soils, even in temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius, they minimise the risk to farmers and communities.

Staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize can’t solve the crisis of micronutrient deficiency. Millets, on the other hand, are known to have a range of nutritional benefits, said Israel Oliver King, director, Biodiversity at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Hughes added that millets are gluten-free, low glycaemic index, and a range of nutritional benefits.

Millets were once grown as traditional crops in several countries like China, Japan, India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and several other Asian and African countries.

Yet, if you haven’t ever eaten millets or heard of them, it is because over the last century rice, wheat and maize have ruled the world – and our plates. In India, experts said the Green Revolution eliminated food diversity and reduced the importance of millets in our farms and plates. Globally too, millets have lost their importance to rice, wheat and maize, which together account for 89% of the world’s grain production.

Millets once accounted for about a third of India’s food basket but has seen a drastic decline in consumption, Hughes said. In the last few decades, per capita consumption of millets dropped by 83% in rural and 77% in urban areas.

Tara Satyavathi, director of Indian Institute of Millet Research said, as policy makers forgot millets, funding for research and development shrunk. Millets didn’t see the growth and popularity which rice, wheat and maize did in the 20th century.

The state-wise millet production in 2021-'22. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly at its 75th session declared 2023 the International Year of Millets.

“Many people have lost the tradition of consuming millets even if they might be from countries that originally consumed millets,” Makiko Taguchi, agricultural officer, Plant Production and Protection Division, Food and Agriculture Organization told Mongabay-India in a Zoom interview. This includes taking stock of the history and the traditions around millets.

“Production and consumption need to go hand in hand, but the first [step] is to really get the public’s attention of what the benefits of millets can be,” she said.

Jowar crop. Millets are better adapted to dry, infertile soils than most other crops. Credit: MGB CEE/Wikimedia Commons

Hughes points to recent work by International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the National Institute of Nutrition in India and other partners that has found that regular consumption of millets can lower the risk of diabetes and obesity, improve cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

International Year of Millets 2023 hopes to increase the attention and interest for millet consumption, said Taguchi. Through that, support for small scale producers in many different developing countries can be improved, and better livelihood opportunities could be provided.

Encouraging global cooperation

International observances (day, weeks, years, or even decades) bring attention to the importance of a topic, Taguchi explained. Generally, a member nation makes a proposal to the UN through a relevant agency, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization in case of millets.

India’s proposal to Food and Agriculture Organization went through internal approvals before being presented at the UN General Assembly and was approved with the support of 71 countries. India is the Chair, and Nigeria and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics are the vice-chair of the Food and Agriculture Organization International Committee for the International Year of Millets.

While this is a UN-wide event, because millets fall under food and agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization is the corresponding implementing agency coordinating with relevant technical experts, several UN member countries and representatives from all regions, and stakeholders such as academia, private sector, and civil society.

The International Year of Millets 2023 consolidates and pushes for global cooperation to promote millet in various ways.

Pearl millet accounts for almost half of global millet production. Credit: Thamizhpparithi Maari/Wikimedia Commons

As King points out, the seeds of International Year of Millets 2023, were sown increasing research interest in neglected crops in the last century. Parallelly, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Indian Institute of Millet Research, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and other institutes have conducted research and development on millets for decades. The Indian government too started taking notice in the last few years, and rebranded millets as nutri-cereals in 2018.

Even as area under millet cultivation dropped by 56% drop in India, production increased from 11.3 to 15.3 million tonnes, Hughes pointed out. This was due to the development and adoption of improved varieties and hybrids, and better crop management practices. Overall, millet productivity has increased by more than two times, and pearl millet productivity has tripled.

Year of Quinoa

One of the most famous food fads of recent times is quinoa, which rose to global fame as a superfood thanks in part to the International Year of Quinoa 2013. Quinoa too was a neglected and underutilised crop and was grown in 50 countries before 2013. After the International Year of Quinoa, this number grew to over 123 countries. This staple from the Andean region, is now grown in diverse climatic zones. Like millets, quinoa too is climate resilient, can improve nutritional security and an alternative to wheat and rice. However, experts have identified a boom and bust cycle when crops like quinoa rise into prominence suddenly.

King, who co-authored a research paper published in Global Food Security in 2022, said once economically developed nations learnt of quinoa’s nutritional importance, there was a sudden increase in consumer demand triggering a rise in prices. There was rapid land-use change resulting in a production increase. This boom was followed by a bust, a rapid decrease in prices, and subsequently, production.

There was also a lot of pull-pressure on Andean communities to grow a certain white variety of quinoa, he said. There are over 6,000 quinoa varieties, but many brown and black varieties were neglected as the market prefers a certain colour and size. This influences breeding and growing preferences.

“It is not the choice of the people who grow it, it is the choice of people who eat and trade in it,” he said. With millets, this can be fixed by focussing on diversity based on farm-based and community centric mechanisms.

“We want countries to maintain their tradition and their production,” Taguchi emphasised, adding that with millets one of the important focus areas has been to understand diverse food cultures and traditions, genetic diversity of millets grown in specific environments, and “to really celebrate those different types of millets and the ways in which they are used around the world.” Some ongoing programmes as part of International Year of Millets 2023 is an ongoing global Chef’s challenge to cook with millets to promote this.

Tongba, a millet-based alcoholic brew found in the far eastern mountainous region of Sikkim. Credit: Jweatherley/Wikimedia Commons

What’s next?

Satyavathi said that continued policy support is crucial, and so is more funding for research and development of various aspects including germ plasm research, productivity and storage, post-harvest technology and value-added products. The research and development scenario, as well as demand for and supply of millet products is improving.

Nutrihub, a startup incubator at Indian Institute of Millet Research, has supported over 500 entrepreneurs and companies to work on post-harvest technology, value-added millet products, among other things. International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, through the HarvestPlus-supported biofortification programme, biofortified varieties of millets with high iron and zinc content.

In India, restaurants are serving millet dishes, mainstream brands such as Tata have a line of millet products under the brand called Soulfull, and several public sector canteens have started serving millets too.

King added that several states like Karnataka and Odisha have promoted millets, many have included it in mid-day meals.

Recently, the Indian embassy in China had a line up of events for diplomats to discuss and dine over millets, the Economic Times reported.

As Taguchi said, in the long term, the hope is that there is enough interest from around the world, including governments and stakeholders to create a community of practice, research and development-focused groups.

To avoid a repeat of what happened with quinoa, King said regardless of technological and production growth, the diversity farm and plates needs to come through community centric models. “The fear is that a particular fashion of approaching this, in terms of promoting specific technology – whether it through seeds, processing facilities, or export strategy – should not kill the diversity on farms.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.