Let us move to the fundamental question. Why millets, why not other food crops? The answers are many. Topping them all is the fact that millets are extremely eco-friendly followed by the following reasons:
They thrive on non-chemical agronomic practices
Millets can grow without synthetic fertilisers
Millets do not demand chemical fertilizers. In fact under dry land conditions, millets grow better in the absence of chemical fertilizers.Therefore most farmers grow them using farmyard manure under purely ecological conditions.
In recent years, farmers have also started using bio-fertilisers such as vermicompost produced in their backyard and growth- promoters such as panchgavya, amritpani, etc.
These practices make millet production not only ecological, but also keep it under the control of farmers.
Grown with traditional local landraces and under ecological conditions, most millets are totally pest free and hence do not need any pesticides. Even in storage conditions, most do not have any need for fumigants. E.g. The Foxtail millet acts as an anti-pest agent in the storage of delicate pulses such as green gram.Millets mean biodiversity
Most millets grown under traditional practices constitute a farming system and not merely a crop. Most millet fields are inherently biodiverse. This is the tradition of millet farming in the country where six to twenty crops are planted in the same space at the same time. The famous Baranaja cropping systems in the Himalayas are a testimony to this. In this millet-led system, 12 different crop varieties are embedded in the same field at the same time. Saat Dhan in Rajasthan also is a host to a large variety of millets. The Pannendu Pantalu system of the South encourages growing millets in combination with pulses and oilseeds, thus making it a holistic farming system.
Do you know how much water we use for growing a kilo of rice? It is an incredible 3000-4000 litres of water!
Assuming that the minimum yield of rice in a chemically-grown Green Revolution model is about 2000 kilos per acre, that acre uses between six and eight million litres of water. If, on the same field you grow millets, you can save six to eight million litres of water for the nation. Even if you price this water at one paisa a litre, a millet farmer contributes nearly Rs.60, 000 per year for every acre of the farm she/he cultivates, to the national kitty.
In a sense, millet farmers are the only ones who do not demand any subsidy from the state, on the contrary subsidise the state exchequer. Consider the fact that nearly 60 million acres of land in India are under millet cultivation. This area contributes in terms of water close to Rs. 350 billion every year to the national income as its own water cess! A contribution never discussed in the august chambers of celebrated economists at the national level. Through such silences, the millet farmers have been completely marginalised.
Millets are adapted to a wide range of ecological conditions, often growing on soils that are less than eight inches deep. They do not demand rich soils for their survival and growth. Most millets can be grown on low fertility soils, some in acidic soils and some on saline soils. Millets such as Pearl millet can be grown on sandy soils as is done in Rajasthan; so for the vast dryland area, they are a boon.
Poor farmers especially in dryland India are owners of very poor lands. Much of the cultivable fallows and low fertility farms have been handed to them through the process of land reforms and the Jajmani system of Inam lands. The only crops that sustain agriculture and food security on these lands are millets.
The capacity of millets to grow on poor soils can be gauged from the fact that they also grow in sub - Sahelian soil conditions in West Africa - which produces 74% of all the millets grown in Africa and 28% of the world production. If they grow in such zones where rainfall can average less than 500 mm, using soils that are sandy and slightly acidic, it is a testimony to their hardiness and extraordinary capacity to survive very harsh conditions. That is why millets can withstand drought-like conditions in the Deccan and Rajasthan and produce food and fodder.
While single crops such as rice and wheat can succeed in producing food security for India, millets do more. They contribute to securities of food, nutrition, fodder, fibre, health, livelihood and ecology. Most millets have edible stalks which are the most favoured fodder for cattle. Sometimes, crops such as sorghum and pearl millet are grown only for their fodder.
Besides fodder, millets are storehouses of nutrition and hence provide nutrition security. Being hosts to diverse crops such as red gram and amaranth, millet fields produce fuel wood and fibre.
The legume crops that are companion crops for millets are also prolific leaf shedders. The fallen leaves act as natural manure and maintain soil fertility. Thus, millet farms do not just use soil fertility for their growth, but also return this fertility to the soil. Ultimately, their energy balance sheet stays clean. All the energy they import for their cultivation is returned by them to the soil
If there is any single factor that should tilt the scales in favour of millets in the food and farming landscape, it is nutrition. By any nutritional parameter, millets are miles ahead of rice and wheat. In terms of their mineral content, millets dwarf rice and wheat. Each one of them has more fibre than rice and wheat - some millets have as much as fifty times that of rice. See the table below and you will discover this amazing quality of millets.
Finger millet has thirty times more calcium than rice, while every other millet has at least twice the amount of calcium compared to rice. In their iron content, foxtail and little millet are so rich that rice is nowhere in the race. While most of us seek a micronutrient such as Beta Carotene in pharmaceutical pills and capsules, millets offer it in abundant quantities. The much privileged rice, ironically, has zero quantity of this precious micronutrient.
In this fashion, nutrient to nutrient, every single millet is extraordinarily superior to rice and wheat and therefore is the solution for the malnutrition that affects a vast majority of the Indian population. Remember in the Global Malnutrition Index, India occupies a position far below that of sub - Sahelian Africa, a region known as the poorest in the world. Therefore, experts say that India is in a state of Nutritional Emergency.
Apart from the poverty-induced malnutrition in the disprivileged rural belts, the nutritional crisis that the urban world faces is also a matter of grave concern. Obesity, diabetes, heart diseases among the urban populations of the world can be traced back to their dietary imbalance and the presence of carbohydrates and absence of other nutritional elements in their diet. To overcome these problems, increased use of millets in our diets can be the answer. In fact, with their low glycemic index millets can be a dietary panacea for the diabetics.
A question that always arises is that millets are surely nutritious, but are they also tasty? The answer is an emphatic yes. Millets are extremely tasty foods. The rotis from jowar and bajra cooked in North Karnataka and Maharashtra are a gourmet’s delight. Some of the upmarket restaurants in Pune in Maharashtra shun rice and serve only millet. In Rajasthan Dal-bati-churma, made with Jowar is the traditional food and people relish its taste. Some of the most popular food joints such as Vishala in Ahmedabad and Dhola ri Dhani in Jaipur serve the most delicious millets.
Café Ethnic nestles in the small town of Zaheerabad in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh. This is the only all-millet organic restaurant in India. The café has proved that using millets one can cook every single recipe that one cooks using rice. Foxtail millet Khichdi, Vada, Idli, Muruku, Bhajiya, Payasam, Ragi Ambali, and rotis from multiple millets are the specialities of the café. The café has also experimented successfully with snacks such as traditional Guntaponganalu to modern spring rolls to sweets such as Badushah.
Millets are not just food; they are an integral part of the culture of thousands of communities all over the country. In South India, the sorghum-growing Deccan areas of Telangana, Marathwada and North Karnataka use sorghum to bless the newlyweds. In many rites of worship across castes and religions, sorghum is revered as the principal ritual grain.
In the Endlagatte Punnam, the panicle festival of the Deccan, freshly cut crop panicles from the field are offered to the village goddess and then hung as decoration on the door front. Sorghum occupies a place of pride in this array of crops. Any food that is so deeply integrated into the culture of communities cannot be taken away from them.
“Experts warn us that Climate Change will confront us with three challenges”
And millets have the capacity to meet these challenges.
When the climate crisis deepens, two of the trusted crops for India’s food security viz., rice and wheat will face a severe setback. The projected 2 degree Celsius temperature rise might force wheat to disappear from our midst since it is an extremely thermal-sensitive crop.
Similarly, the way rice is grown under standing water makes it a dangerous crop in context of the climate change conditions. Methane emanating from water-drenched rice fields is a green house gas that adds to the global warming. Millets are all-season crops cultivated round the year, whereas wheat is season-specific.