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2023 is The International ‘Year of Millets’ | Here’s Why They Matter For Global Food Security

Indigenous millets are a nutritious and climate-resilient crop. But in India, their production is rapidly declining. Find out why the United Nations declared 2023 “the International Year of Millets” and how traditional farmers like Narayan and Kusum Gaikwad preserve the traditional millet varieties.

The guidelines from district administration were not to step out after 10 AM. 77-year-old Narayan Gaikwad did the opposite. “I just wanted to see the effect of this scorching heat on my pearl millet,” he says.

The temperature passed 40 degrees Celsius in the last week of May this year. Despite the heat, Gaikwad, adorning a white shirt, pyjama, and traditional Indian cap with a pointed end, inspected every crop in his 3.5-acre field.

“The hybrid sugarcane had dried completely and immediately needed to be irrigated,” he explains. Meanwhile, sorghum and pearl millet didn’t require any more water. “It has been a month since I watered them, and they all shone brightly. These crops can survive the heat as they are a powerhouse of energy,” Gaikwad tells me as he hugs his pearl millet in the unbearable heat.

Gaikwad and his wife, Kusum, are 65 and live in Jambhali village, which has a population of fewer than 5000 people in India’s Maharashtra state. Over 80% of the people in Jambhali are farmers, but Gaikwad and Kusum are the only ones still cultivating traditional pearl millet and sorghum. Most of their neighbours switched to hybrid sugarcane and sorghum in the 1970s.

Millet production in India

Various types of millet are cultivated in India, such as pearl millet, sorghum, finger millet, barnyard millet, foxtail millet, little millet, and proso millet. In fact, India is the largest millet-producing country in the world. In 2019, for example, India produced 17.3 million tonnes of millet, making up 80% of Asia’s harvest and 20% of global production.1

After the Indian government’s proposal, the United Nations declared 2023 the international year of millets, drawing attention to these climate-resilient and nutritious crops.2 But efforts to revive millets tend to focus on modern hybrid rather than traditional varieties. And if everything goes well, these hybrid varieties have significantly higher yields.

For example, a Government report points out that since the green revolution of 1965-70, the area under millet cultivation declined by a massive 56%, but the productivity increased to 228% because of the adoption of high-yielding hybrid varieties.1

The problem with an overreliance on hybrids is that they can’t deal as well with adversity. According to several local farmers, the hybrid varieties are more affected by pests, diseases, and extreme weather events than the traditional ones.

Millets are nutri-cereal grains that belong to Poaceae, a plant family commonly known as grasses. They are small, round grains grown primarily in Asian and African countries and used for human consumption and livestock feed.

Unprocessed pearl millet.
Unprocessed pearl millet.

Abandoning traditional millet

In the past, millets formed 20% of the food grain basket in India, which has now come down to a mere 6%.1

These falling numbers are visible in tens of thousands of India’s villages like Jambhali, where farmers abandoned traditional crops to move towards well-paying and easier-to-harvest soybeans, sugarcane, and cereals like rice, wheat, and maize. Where millet is still being grown, it tends to be new hybrid versions rather than traditional varieties. But some people are resisting the change.

Last-generation farmers like Gaikwad are defying this trend. For him, abandoning the crop would mean letting down a family legacy of cultivating millet, which goes back 150 years.

“I always give fresh fodder to my cattle, and so I cultivate millets throughout the year,” he says. Almost every day, Gaikwad cuts ten kilograms of pearl millet’s stalk for his Murrah water buffalo. He proudly shares that there’s no particular season to cultivate pearl millet. “I grow it throughout the year despite the climatic fluctuations.”

Every day, the Gaikwad family eats millet flatbread, which makes it impossible for them to abandon the crop. “Our family has a tradition of eating flatbread made of sorghum, pearl millet or finger millet. If we abandon the crop, we don’t just end an important tradition but also bring a tremendous change in farming by moving to complete cash crops or intense usage of chemical fertilisers. None are good for the environment,” says Kusum.

Citizens of Mumbai, India take part in a rally to build awareness of the importance of millets in local diets, 2023. (Bhushan Koyande via Getty Images)
Citizens of Mumbai, India take part in a rally to build awareness of the importance of millets in local diets, 2023. (Bhushan Koyande via Getty Images)

Declining Indigenous millet cultivation

Traditional sorghum takes six months to grow, while the hybrid varieties grow in just half the time and yield almost twice the production. Gaikwad recalls the 1970s when farmers in his village started shifting to high-yielding hybrid millet varieties. Seeing such bumper harvests, one by one, farmers in Jambhali kept abandoning the traditional crops until they hit a dead end.

After several years of success, the new varieties started to fail. I spoke to several local farmers, who explained that hybrid crops are less climate resilient and require intense use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Increasing the use of chemical fertilisers has deteriorated soil quality, bringing down production in the long term. This can create a vicious cycle whereby farmers use even more fertilisers to try to overcome poor soil health, but that “solution” can simultaneously make the problem even worse.

Since 2010, India has reported a 40% decline in sorghum production, down to 4 million metric tons in 2022-23.3,4

Gaikwad cultivates both traditional and hybrid sorghum varieties. He says that while the hybrid varieties are required to feed the growing population, there needs to be a balance.

Chemical fertilisers have been virtually uncontrolled for several years, and Gaikwad says it’s almost impossible to reverse the trend. “Now, many farmers can’t grow any crop without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” he says, pointing towards a neighbouring farmer’s field suffering from extreme salinification.

Read more about how chemical fertilisers are feeding the world - and at what cost

The pros and cons of hybrid varieties

Hybrid varieties might be less resilient, but there are good reasons why they are becoming so popular.

Gaikwad says farmers can harvest over 500 kilograms of pearl millet in an acre of field, while hybrid varieties can go as high as 700-800 kilograms. His sons now prefer cultivating only the hybrid varieties and have abandoned traditional farming. “It’s not their mistake. It’s just unaffordable to cultivate the traditional varieties looking at recurring farm losses and the rising cost of living,” explains Gaikwad. But even if growing hybrid varieties can make more financial sense, there is a nutritional catch.

In an article for Bizz Buzz News, Devinder Sharma, writer, researcher and expert on Indian agriculture, writes, “Not many people know that developing high-yielding crop varieties and hybrids is inversely proportional to a fall in nutrients. The higher the crop productivity, the steeper is the decline in its nutritive value.” He further writes, “They (millets) have 30 to 300 per cent more nutritional elements than wheat and rice. By breeding for higher productivity, millets will invariably lose the advantage they are known for.” 5,6

In Maharashtra alone, over 40 pearl millet hybrid varieties have been released. This threatens the cultivation of nutrient-rich traditional varieties and means that local people could eat increasingly less nutritious food.7

How millets help solve the problem of food security

When compared to other grains and the hybrid millet varieties, traditional millets are highly nutritious.

Amongst millets, finger millet contains the highest amount of calcium.8 Globally, 3.5 billion people remain at risk of inadequate calcium intake.9 Roughly 90% of them live in Asia and Africa. With traditional millets declining and rapidly changing eating habits, the health risks are becoming more severe.

Millets are also found to be an excellent iron source, thereby helping people with anaemia.10 Looking at such benefits, Gaikwad talks of the sugarcane cutters who migrate hundreds of kilometres from drought-prone regions and mainly eat pearl and finger millet flatbread. “They always stay healthy because of eating millet.”

Alongside traditional pearl millet, Gaikwad cultivates ridge gourd (aka. Chinese okra), bitter gourd, amaranth, and elephant grass. “None of these crops interfere with pearl millet’s growth,” he explains. Moreover, diversifying the cultivation has helped him restore the soil nutrients.

Every crop amongst them is nutritious and good for the environment, says Gaikwad. While other farmers in the region struggle to cultivate anything besides sugarcane, Gaikwad proudly grows over fifty food crops and vegetables. 

Editor’s note: Work is being done to “biofortify” hybrid varieties and make them more nutritious. A 2019 study states that 70,000 hectares of “biofortified” pearl millet are grown in India.11 Research projects are in various stages of development, so it’s too early to say how beneficial they might prove to people suffering from micronutrient deficiencies in India and beyond.

Using traditional millets to make farms climate-proof

Farming conditions in Maharashtra have rapidly changed.

Since 2019, floods have become frequent, ravaging hundreds of villages every year. A year before the 2019 flood, India saw the destruction of 1.7 million hectares of land, which increased to 11.42 million hectares in 2019-2020.12 This damage was caused by heavy rainfall, floods, and landslides.

A rescue operation takes place following a landslide in Khalapur Irshalwadi Village, around 63 kilometers from Mumbai.  The incident occurred when the region was gripped by heavy rain. July 21, 2023. (Satish Bate via Getty Images)
A rescue operation takes place following a landslide in Khalapur Irshalwadi Village, around 63 kilometers from Mumbai. The incident occurred when the region was gripped by heavy rain. July 21, 2023. (Satish Bate via Getty Images)

Gaikwad’s fellow villagers reported a significant farm loss in all these years, but he always managed a good harvest. Despite reporting a decline in soybean and hybrid groundnut production, he proudly says, “Nothing happened to my sorghum and pearl millet.” His pearl millet survived despite the heat waves and unseasonal rain. This is not unique to Gaikwad. Research has found that millets are climate resilient.13

Gaikwad shares that pearl millet reaches around four feet, and its roots hold the soil firmly, making it more resilient. “Cultivating pearl millet and sorghum costs me nothing as it doesn’t require chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” he says, helping him tremendously in bringing down the cost of production.

Similarly, his wife Kusum, who has preserved the traditional sorghum, has reported a good harvest. “We are the only family in the village to cultivate this traditional sorghum variety,” she says.

Challenges in preserving the traditional millets

Faced with growing debts, crop failures, and a rapidly changing climate - farmers in India are struggling.

“A single pearl millet cob produces over 1,000 seeds. So why are farmers still dying of suicide?” asks Gaikwad. He refers to a major agrarian crisis worsened by a rapidly destabilising climate. Around 400,000 farmers died by suicide in India between 1995 and 2018.14

A government report points out that over 50% of India’s farming households are in debt with an average of 74,121 Indian Rupees (€826), an equivalent of what a farmer like Gaikwad will get after selling 2,400 kilograms of sorghum.15

But even if millets are more climate-resilient and nutritious, they don’t fetch a good price. “Many times, it becomes difficult even to recover the cost of production. Hence, to date, none has come to me to ask for its seeds,” he says, referring to the declining interest of the next-generation farmers in cultivating them.

Sugarcane is more profitable in the short run. “Sugarcane and cash crops don’t require much care and maintenance. You keep irrigating the field indiscriminately and supplying fertilisers, and those crops flourish,” he says. However, sugarcane requires a tremendous amount of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and when it is continually grown in the same place, the soil becomes depleted of nutrients. It’s also worth remembering that sugarcane isn’t a nutritious crop that improves health or food security. As our sugar intake increases, public health continues to deteriorate.

As sugarcane production grows, traditional millet survival is at risk. “Now we are at a point in farming where if you lose the seed once, you will lose it forever,” So the Gaikwads have taken it upon themselves to preserve the traditional seeds. Over the years, they have successfully preserved the seeds of over fifteen vegetables, millet, and food crops.

“Someday, someone will realise the importance of these crops. My goal is to preserve the crops until then and let them take it ahead.”

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References
  1. Statista (2022). “Production volume of jowar in India from financial year 2010 to 2021, with estimates for 2022.”
  2. US Department of Agriculture (2023). “Sorghum 2022 World Production.”
  3. Sharma, D. (2023). “Shun hybrid varieties, promote traditional millet seeds in India.” Bizz Buzz News.
  4. Govindaraj, M. et al. (2019). ‘Breeding Biofortified Pearl Millet Varieties and Hybrids to Enhance Millet Markets for Human Nutrition’.
  5. C Tara Satyavathi, et al. (2018) Pearl Millet Hybrids and Varieties. ICAR-All India Coordinated Research Project on Pearl Millet, Mandor, Jodhpur, India.
  6. Puranik S., et al. (2017). Harnessing Finger Millet to Combat Calcium Deficiency in Humans: Challenges and Prospects. Frontiers in Plant Science.
  7. Shlisky, J., et al. (2022). Calcium deficiency worldwide: Prevalence of inadequate intakes and associated health outcomes.
  8. Anitha, S., et al. (2021). Millets Can Have a Major Impact on Improving Iron Status, Hemoglobin Level, and in Reducing Iron Deficiency Anemia–A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
  9. Govindaraj, M., et al. (2019) Breeding Biofortified Pearl Millet Varieties and Hybrids to Enhance Millet Markets for Human Nutrition.
  10. MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FARMERS WELFARE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, COOPERATION AND FARMERS WELFARE (2020). “AGRICULTURAL LAND DAMAGED BY FLOODS.”
  11. Abdullah, K. & Abukari, A. & Abdulai, A. (2022) “Testing the climate resilience of sorghum and millet with time series data, Cogent Food & Agriculture,”
  12. Hadikar, J. (2021). “Statistics say nearly 4,00,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2018. Why?”
  13. Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation (2021). “Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019 (January – December 2019).”
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