Year of millets: Harnessing indigenous knowledge systems

ByHindustan Times
Sep 02, 2023 12:12 PM IST

This article is authored by Elisabeth Faure, representative and country director, World Food Programme, India.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated on August 9 every year, assumed relevance with the International Year of Millets being observed this year. The convergence spurred exciting conversations on revisiting the linkage between traditional grains, nutrition, resilience and food sovereignty.

Millets are nutrient-rich grains that are high in proteins, minerals, vitamins, and dietary fibre. (Representative/file)
Millets are nutrient-rich grains that are high in proteins, minerals, vitamins, and dietary fibre. (Representative/file)

The dialogue around millet is connecting the dots from local to global, and India, with its growing leadership narrative from the global south, is shaping policy conversations and knowledge exchanges that link the farm to fork, or should we say seeds to empowerment?

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It is essential to reflect on how local millet value chains contribute to sustainable, inclusive, and resilient food systems and promote circular economy; the role of Indigenous traditional knowledge systems in millet cultivation and sustainability and the need for sharing national successes with other regions through South-South and Triangular Cooperation.

As the momentum around millet grows, there is a need to reiterate that community, context and traditional crop systems need to be at the heart of policy framework and implementation. This is important as millet is not just a crop and a grain; it’s a way of life for indigenous and marginalised communities.

A recent global conversation hosted by World Food Programme (WFP) to mark the International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples saw participating organisations from the Global South stress the importance of learning from the experiences and knowledge of communities that have lived on and saved millet seeds from being lost contributing to not only the biodiversity but also the food security for the future generations.

The event brought attention to the experiences of local organisations including government initiatives in India and Australia on the value of cultivating this drought-resistant nutrient-rich grain in their communities. In India, this ancient grain cultivated for millennia was key to tribal peoples’ diets and cropping systems.

Millet cultivation is a vital practice for tribals in India, as it can improve their food security, health, environment, culture, and economy.

In the past, men primarily engaged in commercial and money-making activities, while women focused on growing millet for family consumption. This not only provided health and nutrition benefits but also helped to safeguard biodiversity. As millets become increasingly popular and profitable, it is important to recognise the crucial role that women play in this activity and ensure that they remain at the centre of it.

In traditional practices, women were responsible for selecting and preserving seeds. They would weave millets into poetry and storytelling, passing down oral traditions. Women also performed rituals like the millet harvest dance, which embodied the philosophy and beauty of their work.

Begari Lakshmamma is a member of the Deccan Development Society in Telangana and works with Dalit and tribal women to develop climate-smart agricultural practices. Addressing the audience during the webinar, she did not mince her word in expressing what millet means to the community when she said: “Millets is a women’s crop, and it’s the local knowledge that has sustained it for generations.”

Innovation that prolongs the shelf-life of millets and reduces the drudgery and intensive labour involved in millet cultivation and processing is sorely needed to enhance well-being of women farmers.

Entrepreneurs in India might consider showcasing the country’s rich millet-based culinary heritage by creating a top-notch gourmet restaurant that serves dishes made solely from ancient and traditional indigenous ingredients. This restaurant would highlight India's vast and often overlooked selection of local foods, procured from tribal and indigenous areas. Taking inspiration from the successful Gustu restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, this venture could put India's traditional dishes back on the map of world gastronomy.

An ecosystem is emerging for the millet supply chain, along with the visibility of this nutrition-packed versatile grain. The farm-to-shelf journey of millets is playing out in the media and dining table conversations, reaching the masses as a choice for a healthy lifestyle. This is all very encouraging but grassroots organisations point out that a balance is needed between the commercialisation of millet and its importance for communities that have been growing and consuming it.

Millets have a significant place in the food culture and heritage of numerous tribal communities in India. Adivasis have been cultivating and consuming them for centuries, and they have developed various indigenous types of millet. Millets are linked with several festivals, rituals, and ceremonies that celebrate the tribal way of life.

For tribal farmers, millets can be a valuable source of income and a means of livelihood. By selling their surplus produce in local or urban markets, they can generate revenue. Additionally, millet can help reduce the reliance on external inputs like seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides, thereby promoting self-reliance and autonomy within tribal communities.

Millets were dubbed as a poor person’s crop or grain that is on the margins while wheat and rice flourished. But women’s self-help groups in Odisha and other states are leading from the front in demonstrating why communities in drylands, arid and low-rainfall areas remained committed to this humble but resilient crop.

In recent years, WFP has been strengthening the collaboration with India on SSTC, building on India’s successful innovations in social protection and resilience building and the Government’s willingness to share lessons learned with countries from the region and beyond. For example, WFP facilitated India to share its expertise on food fortification with Bangladesh and school feeding with the Philippines. There is a growing interest from countries such as Egypt, Kenya and Madagascar to learn from India’s experience with millets.

Millets, with the community at the centre, is bringing together practitioners and experts from governments, development agencies and other institutions in the Global South to discuss how to make India’s good practices with millet value chain development accessible to other countries and contribute to local food systems transformation.

This article is authored by Elisabeth Faure, representative and country director, World Food Programme, India.

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