food talk

Millets aren’t just healthy, they could also hold the answer to food security challenges

Archaeologists say millets – largely used as birdseed in the West – are resilient crops and could help feed the world’s population.

Over half of the food consumed by the human race in terms of calories comes from just three species of grain – wheat, rice and maize – yet in biological terms all are highly unnatural. They’ve been bred, generation after generation, to have grains that are super-sized in relation to their stems. This is perfect for maximising crop yields and profits, but not so perfect if growing conditions change in a changing climate.

Professor Martin Jones, Head of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, is far more interested in a group of around 20 species of small-grained cereals that are generically termed millets. They look like wild grasses, don’t need much water, grow quickly and have a good nutritional balance. Yet, until recently, they have been largely overlooked by the Western world as a food source for humans, and are most commonly found in packets of birdseed.

Now Jones has brought attention to this ancient grain as a means of mitigating against the boom-bust nature of harvests. His work has contributed to a growing market in Asia for high-quality millet from Aohan, Inner Mongolia, and the cereal’s potential is attracting interest from big multinational companies.

All of this has come from Jones’ archaeological interest in ancient farming practices. Searching for evidence of millet in the Neolithic, he discovered two key species – broomcorn and foxtail millet – in the prehistoric crop record in Europe, despite both being botanically East Asian. By piecing together the archaeological evidence, it became clear that Asian millets were coming into Europe, and that wheat and barley from Europe were moving into Asia.

Genetic diversity

“This wasn’t a time when farming was transitioning from hunter-gathering to agriculture,” said Jones. “What we were seeing was a move from single-season, single-crop agriculture to multi-season, multi-crop agriculture.” Hundreds of years ago the Asian millets were being used in flexible and innovative ways, and became among the most geographically widespread crops in the world. By using crops from other regions, the farmers could add another growing season and significantly increase their yields.

Jones’ archaeological work took him to a new site in Aohan when evidence emerged of local millet cultivation in Neolithic times. There, his Chinese colleagues found carbonised particles of foxtail and broomcorn millet dating from 7,700 to 8,000 years ago, which proved to be the earliest record of their cultivation in the world.

But it was his conversations with local farmers that radically altered his perception of the grains. “When we first visited Aohan it could sometimes be hard to tell whether the millet was growing as a crop or as a weed,” he said. We asked the locals, and rather than tell us it was a stupid question – that it was irrelevant whether it was crop or weed – they politely answered a different one. They told us what it tasted like and when they last ate it. These people had lived through hard times, famines, so to survive they had developed more open ideas. I realised then that I’d come with concepts that seemed universal but just weren’t relevant to the lives of people in contemporary northern China.”

The development of their farming practices, like those of the ancient farmers, was driven by the need for resilient plants that could ripen to harvest in challenging years, to ensure food security for the population. “What archaeologists can’t reconstruct is how much the early farmers understood the significance of what they were doing,” said Jones, “but this – and what we’ve heard from today’s Aohan peasant farmers – is something we can learn from in addressing our current food challenges.”

“With harvests and growing conditions intimately linked, the changes in climate now happening across the world pose a real threat to food security in certain regions,” added Jones. “To get the unusually big grain size we see in wheat, rice and maize, a lot of the properties that give the plants inherent resilience have been sacrificed. Being geared towards producing heads of large grains is terrific if you can guarantee all the water, nutrients and sunlight they need. But the crops are much more prone to complete failure if something changes, like the amount of rainfall in a growing season. It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket.”

For farming systems where there’s no financial infrastructure providing subsidies and grants to help farmers control the growing conditions through irrigation, pesticides and other methods, inherent crop resilience can be vital to a successful harvest.

“Millets have an unparalleled genetic diversity both because of their long history of cultivation, and because they’ve been grown in so many regions of the world, including very harsh ones,” said Jones. “This means they’ve retained the wild traits that give them resilience to changes in growing conditions. They don’t need much water, they grow quickly, and they have a great nutritional balance.”

Fluffymuppet/Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Fluffymuppet/Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

After his work demonstrated the importance of the Asian millets and their origins in northern China, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations recognised the Aohan Dryland Farming System as a “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems” site. Aohan millet is now badged as a high-quality product and sold in large quantities to the domestic Chinese market, where it is a staple food. This year, Jones was among those awarded a medal from the Aohan government, not only for raising the profile of Aohan millet but also for helping the farmers to turn around the fate of this once overlooked crop, with support from their local government.

“I’m delighted that the Aohan government found such a useful and practical connection to academic research,” said Jones. “For me, talking to the farmers and local people in Inner Mongolia has taught me that their knowledge about plants is enormous.”

Given the increasing number of extreme weather events, and a growing population demanding a more varied diet, the world is facing a potential crisis in terms of food security. Aid agencies in Africa are becoming more aware of the practice of growing millet alongside the central maize crop as a safeguard against total harvest failure and are supporting farmers in Africa to continue to do this. And UK producers are showing interest in millet as a raw ingredient in branded consumer foods to help people improve their health and wellbeing.

“A huge amount of research linked to food security has focused on the really major crops,” said Jones. “Millets have taught me that it’s worth shifting the focus. We may have a lot still to learn from our Neolithic predecessors.”

Research funded by the European Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.

This article first appeared on University of Cambridge website.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.