Farm challenges

Will Karnataka’s millet superheroes actually encourage more farmers to grow the superfood cereals?

The state is pitching ragi and jowar to urban consumers as the new quinoa.

Last fortnight, Krishna Byre Gowda, agriculture minister of Karnataka, tweeted an illustration of two children wearing eye masks and capes – Millet Maga and Millet Magalu.

The two superhero children are mascots for a campaign to promote a national trade fair in millets and organic food, which ran in Bengaluru from April 27 to 29. The festival came complete with a hashtag, #LetsMillet, and tie-ups with large companies like Big Basket, the online grocery store. Promotional material in newspapers and on billboards on the days before the event strongly pushed the idea of millets, particularly ragi or finger millet, as the world’s new superfood, comparable with quinoa.

For years, particularly in the years after the Green Revolution in India, millets were dismissed as the food of the poor – as coarse grains that could not match up to rice or wheat. Now, that attitude is slowly shifting, and one part of that lies in a growing urban demand for organic and nutritious food and the state’s marketing campaign.

Karnataka is not just targeting urban consumers. It is also the only state to have included millets such as jowar and ragi in its Public Distribution System since July 2015 in accordance with recommendations in the National Food Security Act, 2013. Under this system, five kg of the 25 kg quota for cereals each month are millets, with jowar provided in the North of the state, and ragi in the South. In 2016, Karnataka procured around 20 lakh quintals of millets from its farmers.

All this is in line with the Karnataka government’s evident belief that millets are the market of the future. In a state where agriculture, particularly in the North, has suffered from four consecutive years of drought, pushing the price of millets up might be one way of turning around the fortunes of marginal farmers. It says one way of doing this is to convince urban consumers to buy in to the idea.

“Income is extremely high among urban areas and that is why food prices are also high,” said TN Prakash, chairman of the Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission, who has been the driving force behind the state’s millets campaign. It is exactly this that Karnataka hopes to leverage to drive the prices of millets up, which might, in turn, encourage more farmers to cultivate these cereals.

Prakash added: “Nowadays, urban customers believe that millets are nutritional, are good for diabetes and obesity. So in that sense, the market will take care of millets.”

A farmer works in his millet farm in Kanati village, near Ahmedabad. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).
A farmer works in his millet farm in Kanati village, near Ahmedabad. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).

Millets in welfare schemes

Millets – which comprise several species of small-seeded cereal grasses – are a staple crop of the dryland agriculture that characterises much of peninsular India. They are grown in the rain-fed areas of Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

Farmers traditionally grew millets as part of an intercropping system, along with pulses and legumes, which helped them to balance their diet, said Dinesh Balam of WASSAN, a non-governmental organisation that works with communities to strengthen their natural resource management. Balam has been working with the governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in their attempts to integrate millets into government programmes.

But with declining profit margins and a lack of market interest, many farmers shifted away either to cash crops or to rice and wheat, which the state procured in huge quantities for its Public Distribution System.

Things began to change with the National Food Security Act, which recommends among other things that states should procure and store “coarse grains” and provide it in their Public Distribution Systems at the price of Re 1 per kg.

States such as Andhra Pradesh and Odisha have either started or are planning to start to integrate millets into various nutritional supplement welfare programmes such as midday meals or in the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme, which caters for take-home rations for children. Even these plans are only for a few districts. Apart from Karnataka, none has yet begun to procure millets, which is a massive proposition as it involves gathering enough of these grains to provide for an entire state.

Declining acreage

One reason the Karnataka government is pitching so strongly for millets for urban consumers is because in a field with rapidly decreasing margins, farmers simply do not see millets as a good enough investment.

Prakash said that 30,000 hectares of millets have been displaced in the last decade in Karnataka. “The area under ragi and jowar is getting replaced with other crops,” he said. “That’s one reason for this programme. If there are positive signals from urban areas, the acreage might increase again.”

The trend is replicated across the country, with declining interest in millets, even as productivity per hectare has increased marginally.

And as this article shows, the decline for certain millets has been particularly sharp.

If states are to include millets in their Public Distribution Systems – even if it is only as a supplement and not a replacement for wheat and rice – they should be able to grow enough in the first place.

“To provide five kg of ragi or jowar per month per family, we need to procure a minimum of 50 lakh quintals of ragi and jowar,” Prakash explained. “Last year, we managed to procure 20 lakh quintals of ragi, but not even one lakh quintal of jowar.”

The reason was the drought in North Karnataka, which is the traditional jowar growing region of the state.

According to Prakash, the yield of millets per acre is less than other cereals. “In one acre, you can get 30-40 quintals of paddy, whereas millets are only six quintals,” said Prakash. This is why millets, nutritious as they might be, can never replace rice and wheat in the Public Distribution System. “At a macro level, we need to feed the population. Providing people with organic food is secondary. In that sense, millets can only be a supplement and not a replacement of rice and wheat. You cannot eat millets alone.”

There is another problem in pitching for millets, Balam said, and that is in the eating habits of people dependent on the Public Distribution System for subsistence. “In 20 years in Andhra Pradesh [since the late 1980s], the diet completely changed,” said Balam. “People are now used to having rice instead of their traditional millets.”

A labourer piles millet in a field at Palaiya village near Ahmedabad in 2013. (Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP).
A labourer piles millet in a field at Palaiya village near Ahmedabad in 2013. (Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP).

Note of caution

But are large-scale programmes the best solution to revive the cultivation of millets?

Odisha will begin to add millets to its Integrated Child Development Services scheme in eight blocks of two districts within the next two or three months. It also has a millets mission in seven districts and 30 blocks.

The key, according to Debjeet Sarangi, founder of Living Farms, a non-governmental organisation that has worked with Adivasis and forest communities in Odisha on issues of food security for 30 years, is to respect the local nature of millets.

“If we are talking of food security, we need to use the principle of local production, local storage and local consumption when dealing with millets,” said Sarangi. “Why should millets grown in Odisha go to Delhi? The challenge is that many actors who are intervening [from outside these communities] might not easily understand the nuances of the relationship between community life and millets.”

Sarangi cautions that instead of pushing millets into a centralised procurement scheme, it would be better to promote it in local government schemes instead, to ensure that millets do not go the quinoa way – where the people who grow the pseudocereal are reportedly no longer able to afford to buy it for their own consumption.

“Now that there is a push by urban consumers, I do have a few fears,” Sarangi said. “Markets do not demand all crops that are traditionally grown along with millets. Will the other crops then also disappear?”

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