Between 1983 and 2011, coarse cereal consumption in India has drastically reduced in both urban and rural households. Defined as cereal grains other than rice and wheat, and including maize, pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), sorghum (jowar), barley, and rye, coarse cereals are relatively high in iron content. The rapid change in the dietary habits of Indians has therefore meant an erosion of iron intake, resulting in iron deficiencies among the population.

While our diets have also changed to add other food groups, the iron reduction was only partially compensated by the increased iron from the new food groups. Overall, total iron intake has reduced by 21% (rural) and 11% (urban). The loss has been more acute in states where rice rather than wheat replaced coarse cereals.

New research by Ruth DeFries, Ashwini Chhatre and others used consumption data from over eight lakh households to calculate the intake of iron and other micronutrients from 84 food items over the 28 years. The Green Revolution’s and the public distribution system’s focus on rice and wheat as the main cereal crops is also clearly reflected in consumption patterns. Today, rice and wheat distributed through the public distribution system reaches an increasingly large percentage of the population. Approximately 51% of rural households and 34% of urban households received some portion of their cereals through the public distribution system in 2011.

“The poor are the worst affected due to the increase in…households dependent on PDS [public distribution system],” said Ruth DeFries, professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University and the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “PDS is so important for food security, but the predominance of low nutrient rice in PDS is associated with the reduction in iron intake.”

The dominance of public distribution system grains – rice and wheat – changed consumption patterns and moved diets away from maize, bajra, ragi, jowar and barley. In India, the proportion of coarse to total cereals consumed declined from 35% to 5% in rural areas and 17% to 3% in urban areas between 1961 and 2011.

White rice, historically, was considered the food of the rich while coarse grains the food of the poor. Ashwini Chhatre, academic director and associate professor of public policy, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, said that this played a role in the increasing popularity of white rice. “NT Rama Rao comes to power in 1983 [in Andhra Pradesh] and institutes [a scheme offering] Rs 2 per kilo rice,” said Chhatre. “In the market, [rice was available for]…Rs 7 [per kg]. It was a masterstroke of populism. Think about Telangana – it was not a rice-eating state. It was a jowar and ragi-eating [region], [practising] dry upland agriculture. Rice was not a part of the cuisine. But what if you get 25 kg of rice at Rs 2 a kg? And jowar in the market was Rs 7 [a kg]? What will you do?”

He added: “Rice was also a social marker. Rich people ate white rice. [Thus] people aspired to eat more rice. Between 1983-2013, we have a rural diabetes epidemic. This has happened all over the world. It is a shock to the system.”

Globally, cereal production and consumption have both ballooned. However, this has mostly been dominated by wheat and rice, which have also been the poster boys of research and agricultural extension efforts, much at the expense of nutrient-dense coarse cereals such as millets and sorghum. For example, between 2000-’01 and 2010-’11, the areas under cereals increased by about 5.7 million hectares, pulses by 6 million hectares, and oilseeds by 4 million hectares, but the area under coarse cereals declined by 2.6 million hectares. The area under wheat cultivation meanwhile accelerated significantly. Low productivity and low prices for coarse cereals, dissuade farmers from allotting more land to millets. Cycling back to coarse cereals will require a multi-sectoral approach.

Dipping iron intake

Anemia is a major public health concern in India, which affects more than half of all women and children under five years. Researchers estimate that 20% of maternal deaths in India are directly related to anemia and another 50% indirectly.

Suparna Ghosh-Jerath of the Public Health Foundation of India, and a co-author of the paper, researches public health nutrition as well as indigenous communities and their foods. She said there are various reasons for reduced iron intake and absorption – from the water we are consuming, the environment we live in now, sanitary practices, pathogens that have developed and even a change in one’s dietary intake.

She pointed out that though farmers have traditionally grown coarse millets, which are hardier, easier to grow, and use less water, the general environment is not conducive to grow them any more. She said that farmers have replaced coarse cereal production with maize and cotton, which are high incentive crops. “Even if we want to include it [coarse cereals] in our PDS [public distribution system] procurement…we can only buy it if it is available,” she said.

Ghosh-Jerath, at present, works in Jharkhand pahariyas, a primitive tribal group. “They used to grow gondli a variety of ragi, historically,” she said. “They say they don’t now.” When she asked them why they stopped cultivation of the crop, which requires little water to grow, she was told it was because the market value for maize was better. “Ragi is a rich source of calcium, comparable in terms of carbohydrates and proteins,” she said. “We have to make these popular again.”

Differences among states and cultures

States vary greatly in the contributions of different cereals and other food groups to nutrient consumption, and illustrate the importance of food cultures and leanings when it comes to cereal usage.

In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, diets are heavily rice-based, and the total iron consumption is relatively low. In 1983, coarse cereals, particularly jowar, contributed over 60% of iron from cereals and almost half of all iron consumption in Andhra Pradesh. The large decline in coarse cereals without replacement by iron-rich foods has resulted in an average decline of 70 mg of iron consumption per 30 days per capita. Meanwhile, Gujarat had, on average, the highest iron consumption of all states in 1983 (approximately 580 mg compared to the average of 342 mg per 30 days per capita that year). A very large proportion of iron comes from bajra, which has declined but still contributed considerable iron to the diet in 2011. In 2011, rural households in Gujarat, on average, consumed relatively high amounts of iron (approximately 390 mg per 30 days per capita).

“It is about cultural preference,” said Ghosh-Jerath. “Research clearly shows that the lowest income quartile is still spending a major part of its money in food, on coarse cereals. These are not people who are earning more and buying some new fancy coarse cereal. They are more hooked to their traditional taste preferences.”

Kerala, on the other hand, displays a very different pattern. Diets are rice-based with a small contribution of coarse cereals. However, increased consumption from other food groups – fruits, vegetables, tubers, non-meat protein sources, and meat and fish – increased the average total iron consumption by 65% from 1983 to 2011. But, except for Kerala, the common pattern across states is an overall decline in coarse cereal consumption, despite varying trends.

Contributions of rice, wheat, coarse cereals (jowar, bajra, maize, and ragi), other non-heme food groups and heme sources to per capita consumption of calories (top) and iron (bottom) averaged nationally for rural households in consumption surveys from 1983 to 2011. Heme iron is a type of iron that comes from animal protein such as meat and fish. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, milk products, and other non-animal protein sources.

Beyond food security

Coarse cereals have attracted considerable interest for their nutritive value, along with their water efficiency, climate resilience in semi-arid conditions, and ability to grow on poor soils. Increased consumption of coarse cereals could also reduce anemia prevalence in Indian women along with other interventions.

“Generally things look like [they are] going in right direction,” said Chhatre. “In Punjab, farmers are concerned about water savings, some are replacing rice with maize, which uses far less water. We need to wean farmers away from rice. In Odisha – [Chief Minister] Naveen Patnaik has started a program for millets, an incentive program to increase production in millets. This is what makes me hopeful.”

Distribution of coarse millets through the public distribution system could beget the largest procurement and consumption in India. Karnataka attempted to do this in 2013-’14 by initiating the procurement of millets from farmers in order to distribute them through the Anna Bhagyadinda Krishi Bhagya scheme. The objectives of this scheme were – substantial cash flow to rural households and access to nutritious food grains at low prices for holders of public distribution system cards. However, several bottlenecks were identified. For instance, despite a quantum jump in the minimum support price for ragi and jowar to make it attractive for farmers to supply to the government, procurement targets were not fully achieved. There are just not sufficient millets being produced and the cost was high.

“Just saying that we need coarse grains is not going to cut it, we need various sectoral level policies,” said Ghosh-Jerath. “Do farmers have enough in store to supply to the FCI [Food Corporation of India]? We have to fix a price, create the right environment, [facilitate] farmers’ awareness and education. Just telling them to do will not do it.”

She added: “They are also habituated to certain things. Going back to millets will need support. Not just from the agricultural department but also scientists and researchers, and even the Woman and Child Development Department, to incorporate these cereals into supplementary programs. It is the whole environment that has to be changed, a team effort.”

Green Revolution for coarse cereals

Over the decades, rice and wheat have been the focus of research, development and extension efforts, mostly at the expense of coarse cereals. “We need to invest in plant breeding – improved varieties just like we did for rice and wheat,” said Chhatre. “Right now it is all very tentative. Farmers are not going to change their habits for temporary pilot procurement. Till then the government has to take a hit. In the 1960s and ’70s, when the procurement system expanded – the willingness of the government to soak these costs was much higher.” Similarly, milling and processing technologies for coarse cereals have not kept pace either, and need more pointed focus.

But Chhatre feels that things are moving in the right direction. “I think stars are aligned but the process is slow,” he said. “Niti Aayog had a task force for millets from the nutrition point of view, [Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu] Naidu has advertisements for ragi, [Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara] Raje is talking about bajra.”

He pointed out that introducing coarse cereals into the public distribution system will also help redistribute procurement. At the moment, 50% of the cereals for this system are procured from Punjab and Haryana.

When Ghosh-Jerath talks to the tribal groups, they say that their ancestors loved these cereals but that was the old world, and now they get rice from the public distribution system. “They have more time and energy to do other things, at a lower cost,” she said. “The opportunity cost is much lower for PDS grain.” She says that the tribals tell her: “Ab hum mehnat kyon karein. [Why should we work so hard now?]” It has become about convenience and time. “They would rather grow a cash crop and buy PDS rice at a lower cost and have a better lifestyle,” she added. “So, one’s stomach is filled, but at the cost of nutrition. We need nutritionally sensitive agriculture. It has everything to do with food choices and human behaviour.”

Women harvesting small millets from a farm. (Photo credit: Manu Moudgil/VillageSquare).