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India’s Millet Makeover: Addressing Nutritional Shortfalls

India has recently introduced millet into the midday meal program in schools. The move looks set to have a positive impact on the nutritional status of children, reports IndiaSpend.com.

Written by Charu Bahri Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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Millet crop. A new government proposal in India seeks to put millets – which have higher iron, calcium and mineral content than rice, wheat and wheat derivatives – back in the Indian diet.DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Indian union government proposes to include coarse grains such as jawar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet) and ragi (finger millet) into the midday meal program in schools and also distribute it through the government-subsidized food program, the public distribution system (PDS), agriculture secretary S.K. Patnaik said recently.

This announcement comes five years after the introduction of the National Food Security Act, which provided for the distribution of millet – once a staple in the Indian diet. PDS beneficiaries, 813 million of India’s poorest people and roughly 75 percent of its rural population and 25 percent of its urban population, will get millet at 1 rupee [2 cents] per kilogram.

Until now, only a few states such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had made millet available, and only in certain pockets.

However, the government will give millet a makeover before making it available through the PDS. “Instead of distributing millet as a coarse grain, the government proposes to bracket it in a new ‘nutri-cereals’ category,” Vilas A. Tonapi, director of the Indian Institute of Millets Research, told IndiaSpend.

There is now a growing awareness of the superior nutritional profile of millet compared with wheat and rice – the staples so far distributed through the PDS and most consumers’ preferred food. Millet, because of its higher iron, calcium and overall mineral content compared to wheat and rice, has the potential to help address India’s malnutrition problem, a fact IndiaSpend reported in August 2016.

More than half of India’s women and children, and one in five men, are anemic. Their loss of productivity shaved $22.64 billion (Rs 1.5 lakh crore) off India’s gross domestic product in 2016, more than three times the health budget for 2017-18, IndiaSpend reported last month.

Malnutrition is also implicated in India’s growing tide of diabetes, as IndiaSpend reported in December 2015. Diabetes is now affecting the urban poor as well as the affluent.

This renewed focus on millet may not be easy to achieve. India’s average annual millet production stood at 17.79 million tonnes between 2010-11 and 2014-15. This is less than a tenth of the 215 million tonnes of rice and wheat produced. So large-scale procurement of millet presupposes a radical change in India’s crop-growing pattern.

“Yes, the government will encourage more farmers especially in rain-fed areas to grow the grain,” said Tonapi.

The revival of millet could benefit India’s floundering agriculture sector by boosting farm income and sustainable agriculture, as explained below. It could also be a step toward providing sufficient food and nutrition in the event of climate change-triggered drought, because millet is a hardier crop than wheat and rice, with some varieties growing well in areas more arid than western Rajasthan, India’s driest region.

Shift From Millet to Wheat and Rice Damaging India’s Health, Environment

Making millet a significant part of the average Indian’s diet will require the reversal of a food preference trend that can be traced back half a century.

A staple until the 1960s, millet was pushed off the plate of the average Indian by wheat and rice, IndiaSpend reported in August 2016. By 2010, the average annual per capita consumption of sorghum and millet slid from 32.9kg to 4.2kg [72.5lb down to 9.3lb], while the consumption of wheat almost doubled from 27kg to 52kg [59.5lb up to 114.6lb].

In rural India, this change was the obvious outcome of making wheat and rice inexpensively available through the PDS, an initiative to alleviate malnutrition associated with low calorie intake.

“In 1965, food insecurity was so widespread that we actively promoted wheat and paddy [rice] to alleviate the situation,” Ashok Dalwai, chief executive officer of the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA), told IndiaSpend.

In urban India, the belief that wheat and rice are superior to millet was the biggest reason for this dietary evolution. Food convenience has also played a role. Wheat lends itself particularly well to the mechanized mass production of value-added products such as biscuits, cakes and noodles.

Millet Is More Nourishing and Less Resource-Intensive to Grow

Food can be calorie (carbohydrate) rich but nutritionally poor. This is especially true of some processed wheat-based packaged foods.

Millet has more iron, calcium and minerals than wheat and rice, a comparison IndiaSpend tabulated in August 2016 (see below). In general, it has a lower glycemic index than rice and wheat, and for this reason the grain could help stem India’s growing diabetes epidemic, said S.K. Gupta, principal scientist at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Data Source: Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, National Institute of Nutrition (Indiaspend.com)

Data Source: Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, National Institute of Nutrition. (Indiaspend.com)

Data Source: Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, National Institute of Nutrition. (Indiaspend.com)

Data Source: Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, National Institute of Nutrition

Millet is also less resource-intensive to grow than wheat and rice. For instance, pearl and finger millet require one-third the water [needed by] rice – 350mm [14in] rainfall as against 1,250mm [49in], as IndiaSpend reported in August 2016.

The intensive agriculture of the Green Revolution has caused acidic soils and a falling water table, pressing issues that need to be resolved [so that] agriculture [can] be made sustainable, said the NRAA’s Dalwai.

“Millet could play a major role in this because it grows well in poor soils and consumes less water than rice and wheat,” he said.

The Aim: More Nutrition – Not Calories

With every needy Indian now officially covered by the PDS, the government has shifted its focus to examine what is missing in the diet of the average Indian.

“India has done well in meeting its food requirement; this gives us the latitude to work toward achieving nutritional security, and we find millet can help achieve this objective,” said Dalwai. “In promoting millet, India’s focus is shifting from food security to nutritional security.”

Whereas rural India is likely to respond positively to the inclusion of cheaper millet in the PDS, urban India might be a different story. To create awareness about the impending shift to millet, the government has proposed to the United Nations that 2018 be declared the International Year of Millets.

The government would like more entrepreneurs to manufacture millet-based convenience foods that would appeal to urban consumers. But entrepreneurs want the government to tweak taxation policies to make the pricing of millet-based products more attractive.

“Packaged millet attracts 5 percent goods and services tax while processed millet products such as noodles attract 18 percent, which increases the product price,” said Vinod Kumar, founder and CEO of Naturally Yours, which retails millet. “If the government is genuinely interested in promoting the consumption of millet, it should offer some relaxation in taxation.”

Millet, in Short Supply, Can Boost Farmers’ Incomes

Growing awareness about the nutritional value of millet in the past few years, especially the less popular small varieties such as little (kutki), kodo (kodon), foxtail (kakum) and barnyard (sanwa), has put pressure on the limited supply available.

India is facing a 45 percent shortfall in the supply of small millets, said Tonapi. Consequently, the industry has seen a 30 percent price rise in the past three years alone, according to Kumar.

Mass procurement of millet at a remunerative price for distribution through the PDS is expected to encourage more farmers to cultivate the grains. However, the government is not necessarily looking at a mass switch from wheat and rice cultivation to millet.

Millet is fast-growing, which raises the possibility of squeezing an extra crop into agricultural schedules, explained Tonapi.

For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, where a ban exists on growing a third rice crop in view of the falling water table, farmers are growing millet on 50,000 hectares [123,500 acres].

“The millet can be harvested in barely 95-100 days,” said Tonapi. “Intensive cultivation is yielding returns, farmers are getting roughly double the 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare yield that most millet farmers get, which they sell at 15-20 rupees [23-31 cents] per kg.”

Additionally, the idea is to identify niche rain-fed areas where millet has not been traditionally grown, said Tonapi.

Making available seeds of short-duration varieties of millet would also help boost availability and farmers’ incomes. This is especially true for the sorghum kharif (monsoon) crop that tends to get spoiled in too much moisture.

“Slower-growing varieties of sorghum that get spoiled end up in the brewery supply chain. Farmers would earn more by cultivating fast-growing hybrids for the food chain,” said Tonapi.

Millet, the Crop of Marginal and Small Farmers

Doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022 is a stated objective of the government. This relates closely to millet cultivation because the crop is largely grown by small and marginal farmers, who work on 85 percent of India’s 138.35 million operational holdings, spanning 159.59 million hectares [394 million acres]. They are also among the poorest farmers in India.

To this end, the government has drafted the Contract Farming Act, which will be released soon to the state governments. Contract farming creates an assured market and price for a crop, which removes a lot of the risk surrounding agriculture.

In terms of millet, contract farming is likely to take the form of agreements between farmer cooperatives and farmers as opposed to supermarket chains and farmers, said Tonapi. “By taking on storage and primary processing facilities, farmer co-ops will make farmers stakeholders in the supply chain, thus improving their income.”

Agricultural Ministry: With Climate Change, Millet Is Often the Last Crop Standing

The prospect of global temperatures rising by 1-6C [1.8-10.8F] by 2100 raises serious questions about food sufficiency in the face of more frequent droughts.

Millet is known to be a hardier crop than wheat and rice. “In times of climate change millets are often the last crop standing and, thus, are a good risk management strategy for resource-poor marginal farmers,” according to this recent government press release.

Pearl millet, in particular, reliably produces grain in harsh conditions such as low soil fertility, high soil pH, high soil salinity, low soil moisture and a mean annual precipitation as low as 250mm [10in], says this September 2017 study co-authored by ICRISAT and published in the journal Nature.

West Rajasthan, India’s most arid region, receives 313mm [12in] rainfall per annum – 25 percent more rainfall than pearl millet needs.

Pearl millet can also withstand air temperatures higher than 42C [107.6F]. In the same drought conditions, rice, bread wheat and durum wheat, and even other so-called coarse cereals such as maize and sorghum are likely to fail, the study said.

Therefore, increasing the share of millet in the country’s food basket beyond the current 10 percent would help move toward food and nutritional sufficiency in the event of climate change-triggered drought, a likely possibility, IndiaSpend reported in December 2015.

Millet could be the answer to some of India’s most enduring challenges.

This article originally appeared in IndiaSpend.com.

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