Mainstreaming millets: Pathway for food and nutrition security - Hindustan Times
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Mainstreaming millets: Pathway for food and nutrition security

ByHindustan Times
Jun 14, 2023 03:44 PM IST

Authored by - Amrutha Nair, Srishti Pandey, Ishika Chaudhary, social economic empowerment team, IPE Global (international development consultancy firm).

Aligning with India’s suggestion, the United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. The objective is to make them a popular choice to grow on farms and on plates across the globe. This presents a windfall opportunity for India, which is the largest producer of millet in the world, to strengthen its own food and nutritional security.

Millets are small-grained cereals that are highly tolerant to drought and extreme weather conditions and require low chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. (REPRESENTATIVE PIC)
Millets are small-grained cereals that are highly tolerant to drought and extreme weather conditions and require low chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. (REPRESENTATIVE PIC)

Millets have a long-standing tradition of being a dietary essential across several Indian regions. However, their production took a back seat when the government’s focus shifted towards maximizing yields of wheat and rice during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Post-Green Revolution, the area under cultivation of coarse cereals decreased drastically from 37.67 million hectares to 25.67 million hectares. Inadequate systemic support for production, processing, storage, and distribution has kept millets out of the mainstream food discourse for decades. Additionally, a lack of awareness regarding their nutritional benefits and recipes contributed to negligible consumer demand.

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At a Global Millets Conference in New Delhi, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi spoke of millets as an effective solution to address universal food security and nutrition. Referring to them as ‘Shree Anna’ (loosely translating to divine crop), the PM emphasised how encouraging the production and consumption of millets could usher in prosperity for small farmers, boost nutrition levels of people, transition towards climate-smart agriculture and combat the climate crisis.

To bring millets back into the mainstream food basket will be possible only when both supply and demand-side constraints are addressed. Introducing systemic reforms to boost production and altering people’s food preferences (demand-side) is an uphill task and cannot be achieved without strong political will and strategic commitments.

India recorded a positive trend of 27% growth in millet production in the year 2021-22 compared to the previous year. It has also been able to provide an enabling environment for the growth of startups in the millet value chain, with more than 500 companies now operating in this space. The Indian Institute of Millets Research, which was recently recognised as a Global Centre of Excellence, has incubated 250 startups under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, creating an enabling ecosystem. These efforts must be magnified to bring about a transformational change in how millets are perceived and integrated into the common man’s food basket.

Creating a millet-supportive ecosystem, strengthening the entire value chain, right from farming to processing, procurement, storage, and distribution, combined with effective behaviour change interventions, can influence people's food preferences. To make millets a popular choice among people, the Government of India should invest in institutionalising the millet agenda through inter-departmental cooperation. As a starting point, government schools may be directed to celebrate one day a week as millets day, where students will be served millets-based dishes for mid-day meals. In addition, schools can organize sessions to disseminate information on the nutritional value of millets and students may be encouraged to undertake academic activities and assignments around the ‘superfood’.

State governments may also look at including millet in the take-home ration disbursed under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme. For instance, states like Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana are worth highlighting in this regard. In addition, nutrition counselling for pregnant women and lactating mothers should aim at building confidence among women and the community at large around the health benefits of millet consumption, especially during pregnancy. This could help in restoring millet as an aspirational food item among households, thereby stimulating domestic demand. Once there is demand, millets can be distributed at affordable prices through the public distribution system (PDS) to enhance domestic consumption.

Similarly, the government can endorse millets-based dishes in the kitchens/canteens of its offices, train pantries, and hospitals. Government hospitals hold the potential to revive millet consumption among patients, as they are a rich source of carbohydrates, protein, dietary fibre, good quality fat and have substantially high amounts of minerals like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and vitamin B complex. Hence, millets can be integrated into patient’s recommended diets, especially for those suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Further, government offices and trains can include millets in everyday pantries, including millet-based cookies, soups, and bread (rotis). Millet dishes can also be served at government-led conferences, conclaves, and other high-visibility events to exhibit the government’s commitment to the promotion of millets.

At the regional level, states like Odisha and Karnataka have encouraged millet consumption by integrating it with different government schemes. However, this cannot be limited to only a few states, regions, or community groups. Best practices should be studied and replicated across other regions to maximise impact.

With time and consistent efforts, as government institutions steadily become successful in building a millet culture, the private sector could follow suit, thereby leading to a significant shift in how millets are perceived by the public. For instance, multi-cuisine restaurants can become an excellent platform for building consumer engagement with millets. To start with, innovations may be made by incorporating millets within existing dishes on the menu before introducing specific millet-based dishes. A simple case in point, ragi can be used as a thickener for soup, sorghum may be kneaded in the dough for cookies, and bread can be prepared by mixing millet flour with wheat and other flour. Introducing such simple recipes can help familiarise and popularise millets-based food among customers to galvanise demand.

Efforts to mainstream millets should be made keeping factors like affordability, accessibility, and acceptability at the centre without missing out on the rural poor. Sushila Watti, board member, Narmada FPC Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, and Janaki Maravi, president, Halchalit Mahila Kisan Company, Dindori are women changemakers who are already building strong narratives at the grassroots level, paving the way for establishing an inclusive and sustainable millet culture in the country. These successful models should also be encouraged and replicated across the country.

With minimum investment and low input costs, millets deliver higher nutritional benefits when compared to other major cereal grains. Rightly redefined as ‘Shree Anna’, millets have the potential to transform India’s food security and nutrition landscape. They can enable the achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals including zero hunger, good health and well-being, sustainable consumption and production, and climate action.

Authored by - Amrutha Nair, Srishti Pandey, Ishika Chaudhary, social economic empowerment team, IPE Global (international development consultancy firm).

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