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Why did UN declare 2023 as International Year of Millets?

A video explaining why did millets lose preference over the past few decades and what is the export market like

January 11, 2023 08:43 pm | Updated January 19, 2023 07:02 pm IST

The year 2023 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of the Millet, following a proposal by India, which wants to position itself as a global hub for millets. 

It’s interesting how millets can help the world face the challenges confronting it. 

Here’s what the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN has to say about millets. As the global agrifood systems face challenges to feed an ever-growing global population, resilient cereals like millets provide an affordable and nutritious option, and efforts need to be scaled-up to promote their cultivation. “Millets can play an important role and contribute to our collective efforts to empower smallholder farmers, achieve sustainable development, eliminate hunger, adapt to climate change, promote biodiversity, and transform agrifood systems,” says FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. 

How are millets healthier for you? 

Millets are cereal, like rice or wheat, but used to be referred to as coarse cereals, an obvious reference to the external texture which is not smooth. All cereals are a rich source of carbohydrate but millets also come with more protein, dietary fibre, iron and calcium content than rice or wheat. 

In a 2018 notification, the government says millets are a powerhouse of nutrients and that research had shown millets as good defence in the fight against diabetes. Millets have a low glycemic index, which means such foods have lesser impact on blood glucose levels than foods that are higher up in the index. To help consumers understand the benefits better, the government has changed the nomenclature from coarse grains to Nutricereals. 

Why are millets said to be climate-friendly? 

An article at ORFonline tells us that millets use 70% less water than rice; grow in half the time of wheat; and need 40% less energy in processing. They are hardy crops that can withstand extreme heat conditions. 

Why did millets lose preference over the past few decades?

Millets are said to be among the earliest, if not actually the first, cereals to have been cultivated by mankind. In a few years following independence, India was hit with a food shortage and we had to quickly get our act together. The Green Revolution prioritised the production of wheat and rice helping avert such crises.

A paper published in the Ethnic Foods Journal, part of Springer Nature, claims that before the Green Revolution, production of rice and millets were higher than the production of wheat, barley, and maize combined all together. But since then, the production of millets has gone down, and “the crops that were once consumed in every household became a fodder crop in just a few decades” after the Green Revolution. 

According to a presentation by the Ministry of Agriculture and farmer welfare, precedence given to rice and wheat meant the millets declined in acreage. Till the 1965-70 time-frame, millets formed 20% of our food grain basket but are now down to 6%.

Now, look at the percentage of cropped area – for wheat versus jowar as an example! Jowar went from close to 12 to 3.1% in about 65 years, and wheat, from 7.6% to 16.2%:

Opportunities for millet start-ups

If a business is ripe for the taking, can start-ups be far behind? There are several areas that offer opportunities. Of course, demand is something entrepreneurs would have to review for their offering before setting off on a journey. The government has funded 66 start-ups with investments exceeding a cumulative ₹6 crore.

Govt. has to act on both demand creation and incentivise production.

If policy and technological innovation could make rice and wheat go up in consumption more than 50 years ago, the reverse in favour of millets is also likely possible, if that’s what the country wants.

Even though the MSP of millets (ragi, bajra and jowar) had been raised by 80-125% between 2013-14 and 2021-22, according to a piece in our sister publication BusinessLine, their combined production has dropped by 7% to over the last eight years.

Demand creation will also be key. Because if I just love having rice, and don’t think highly of millets, a marginal price difference won’t make eat millets. As per the National Food Security act, coarse grains are sold at rates cheaper than rice or wheat via the PDS. A look at the stock numbers as of December with the FCI tells you a story about both production and demand. Rice and wheat run into large triple digits in monthly averages while coarse grains are in low single digits in terms of lakh tonnes.

Script and presentation: K. Bharat Kumar 

Production: Shibu Narayan 

Videography: Johan Sathyadas 

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