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Millets: From the Farm to the Palm

Dietary choic­es have an impact on the plan­et in a very sig­nif­i­cant way. They deter­mine the kind of food that is pro­duced and what hap­pens to the food after it is pro­duced. While the high focus on increas­ing food avail­abil­i­ty by mass cul­ti­va­tion of cer­tain crops like rice and wheat have helped to alle­vi­ate hunger, they have also result­ed in sev­er­al prob­lems includ­ing a) mono­cul­ture lead­ing to reduced bio­di­ver­si­ty: of the 50,000 plant vari­eties rice, wheat and maize account for 60% of the plant-based food sup­ply b) increase in the car­bon foot­print of food due to usage of fer­til­iz­ers for cul­ti­va­tion, pro­cess­ing of food and trans­porta­tion c) large vol­umes of food wastage. In a devel­op­ing coun­try like India which has a pop­u­la­tion of 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple, one hand the poli­cies laid out to increase food pro­duc­tion did help to reduce hunger but on the oth­er hand they have reduced the nutri­tion­al diver­si­ty of food. For instance, in 2016, India pro­duced about 103 mil­lion tonnes of rice while only 17 mil­lion tonnes of puls­es. A lop­sided focus on rice and wheat not only reduces the nutri­tion­al diver­si­ty but also imbal­ances the water con­sump­tion by agri­cul­ture and the rain­fall depen­den­cy. Rice requires about 2.7 mil­lion acre-feet of water and 1250 mm of rain­fall in con­trast to grains that need only .8 mil­lion acre-feet and 350 mm of rain­fall. Dietary pat­terns in turn are impact­ed by the pro­duc­tion and avail­abil­i­ty of the foods of choice. So the cul­ti­va­tion is depen­dent on the demand and the demand dri­ves pro­duc­tion. Hence sus­tain­able diet not only involves the con­sump­tion of nutri­tion­al and ener­gy effi­cient foods but also the pro­duc­tion of the same. Solu­tions address­ing respon­si­ble and sus­tain­able food con­sump­tion can lead to both incre­men­tal and rapid trans­for­ma­tions as dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers like farm­ers, end con­sumers, food retail­ers, tech­nol­o­gists and pol­i­cy mak­ers join hands.

In the above con­text, mil­lets are won­der grains and for mil­len­nia we have been con­sum­ing them. How­ev­er after the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, rice and wheat start­ed dom­i­nat­ing the farm­lands and mil­lets that are far more sus­tain­able, slow­ly but steadi­ly began dis­ap­pear­ing from our food sys­tem. Get­ting peo­ple to change their food habits is not easy. Chang­ing the entire farm­ing and food sys­tem is even big­ger a chal­lenge.

Here are some rea­sons why you should start includ­ing mil­lets in your diet today:

Millets are packed with nutrients:

High Fibre – All mil­lets have at least 5 times the amount of fibre as rice. Barn­yard mil­let has 50 times as much. Low Glycemic Index – Mil­lets con­tain com­plex car­bo­hy­drates that digest slow­ly and release sug­ar slow­ly into the blood­stream. They are an ide­al diet choice for dia­bet­ics and those at risk of meta­bol­ic dis­or­ders. High Cal­ci­um - Fin­ger mil­let has thir­ty times more cal­ci­um than rice, while every oth­er mil­let has at least twice the amount of cal­ci­um com­pared to rice. Iron con­tent — In their iron con­tent, fox­tail and lit­tle mil­let are so rich that rice is nowhere in the race.

Mil­lets are also rich in min­er­als and micronu­tri­ents like Beta Carotene, which rice com­plete­ly lacks.

Since mil­lets are supe­ri­or to rice in all aspects of nutri­tion, they can be used to solve the rur­al as well as urban mal­nu­tri­tion prob­lem that the world is fac­ing today. 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 our diet.

To over­come these prob­lems, increased use of mil­lets in our diets can be the answer.

Are millets tasty?

Sure, mil­lets are nutri­tious. But, how do they taste?

Mil­lets cer­tain­ly are tasty foods. For gen­er­a­tions, Indi­ans have been con­sum­ing mil­lets as a part of their dai­ly food. Ragi por­ridge, Pearl mil­let por­ridge, mil­let lad­doos, mil­let upma, mil­let dosas are very pop­u­lar dish­es. Processed foods like mil­let cook­ies, cakes, nutri­tion bars, puffed mil­let snacks, mil­let heath mix­es, etc can also be found in most of the super­mar­kets and local stores.

Almost all foods that are cooked with rice and wheat can be pre­pared with mil­lets. Each mil­let adds a unique flavour to the dish and con­sum­ing mil­lets also ensures a healthy diges­tive sys­tem due to its high fibre con­tent. Also mil­let cook­ies do not stick to the mouth like oth­er cook­ies, and this adds a lot of taste to it.

Millets need hardly any irrigation:

Mil­lets are rain fed crops and hence they need no irri­ga­tion. Lets us look at the water foot­print of grow­ing 1 acre of mil­let and 1 acre of rice. It takes 6 mil­lion litres of water to cul­ti­vate one acre of rice. This equals the annu­al water con­sump­tion of 100 fam­i­lies. To sim­ply put it, 1 tanker full of water goes into pro­duc­ing 1 kg of rice! On the oth­er hands mil­lets require only about 28% of the water needs of pad­dy, and can also with­stand severe droughts. They can go with­out water for more than a month. That is why mil­lets can with­stand drought-like con­di­tions in the Dec­can and Rajasthan and pro­duce food and fod­der.

If we look at this graph, we see that cul­ti­va­tion of mil­lets requires much less water than rice. Revival of mil­lets can help in major way. Tim­bak­tu Col­lec­tive, an orga­ni­za­tion in Anan­tha­pur Dis­trict has helped local farm­ers tran­si­tion from cash crops, espe­cial­ly ground­nuts, to mil­lets. Their inter­ven­tions have giv­en amaz­ing results. The farm­ers who used to grow ground­nut gen­er­al­ly used to sub­sist on rice avail­able from the PDS. After they start­ed grow­ing mil­lets, they have includ­ed them in their day to day con­sump­tion. The chart below shows the yield of a farmer from 2011–2014.

~ Barn­yard mil­let has 531% the iron in wheat, 1,033% that in rice. Pearl mil­let has 314% the iron in wheat, 611% that in rice. Lit­tle mil­let has 265% the iron in wheat, 516% that in rice.

~ Fin­ger mil­let has 839% the cal­ci­um con­tent of wheat and 3,440% that of rice. Pearl mil­let and wheat are com­pa­ra­ble in cal­ci­um con­tent, both of which have four times the cal­ci­um den­si­ty of rice

~ Barn­yard mil­let has 313% the min­er­al con­tent of wheat, 783% that of rice; fox­tail mil­let has 220% the min­er­al con­tent of wheat, 550% that of rice.

~ Proso, fox­tail, pearl and barn­yard mil­lets com­pare with wheat in pro­tein con­tent. Sorghum and all mil­lets are rich­er sources of pro­tein than rice.

~ Girls fed a diet com­posed of sorghum (60%) and rice (40%) record­ed a high growth rate than those fed just rice, accord­ing to this 2015 study by the Indi­an Insti­tute of Mil­lets Research and the Nation­al Insti­tute of Nutri­tion, Hyder­abad.

Millets grow on the poorest of soils

Mil­lets are often grow­ing on skele­tal soils that are less than 15 cm deep. Mil­lets do not demand rich soils for their sur­vival and growth. Hence, for the vast dry­land area, they are a boon. Mil­lets can grow in poor qual­i­ty soils, turn­ing hith­er­to uncul­tivable land into pro­duc­tive farms. Togeth­er with their com­pan­ion crops, mil­lets enrich and build the soil. Most mil­lets can be grown on low fer­til­i­ty soils, some in acidic soils and some on saline soils, which is a tes­ti­mo­ny to their har­di­ness and extra­or­di­nary capac­i­ty to sur­vive very harsh con­di­tions. Mil­lets such as Pearl mil­let can be grown on sandy soils as is done in Rajasthan. Poor farm­ers espe­cial­ly in dry­land India are own­ers of very poor lands and low fer­til­i­ty farms. The only crops that sus­tain agri­cul­ture and food secu­ri­ty on these lands are mil­lets.

Millets produce multiple security

They offer not only food but also fod­der, health, nutri­tion, liveli­hood and eco­log­i­cal secu­ri­ty.

The residues from Sorghum and Pearl Mil­let are also exten­sive­ly used as domes­tic con­struc­tion mate­ri­als, live­stock feed as well as for fuel. Mil­let farms are inher­ent­ly bio­di­verse and hence pro­vide secu­ri­ty to the farmer.

Being all sea­son crops, they can be cul­ti­vat­ed all year round. A mil­let farm has sev­er­al oth­er crops such as ground­nut, horse gram and lentil plant­ed with­in it. Com­bined with the fact that no pes­ti­cides are used, such a farm becomes a thriv­ing ecosys­tem.

Mul­ti crop farms are a nat­ur­al insur­ance against not only pests, but unpre­dictable weath­er and mar­ket pric­ing as well. If one crop fails, the farmer has oth­ers to use for food and to sell. Thus, while oth­er food crops can offer us food secu­ri­ty, mil­lets can offer mul­ti­ple secu­ri­ties.

Millets do not require chemical fertilizers:

Mil­lets do not demand syn­thet­ic fer­til­iz­ers. In fact, under dry­land con­di­tions, mil­lets grow bet­ter in the absence of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers. There­fore, most mil­let farm­ers grow them using farm­yard manure under pure­ly eco-friend­ly con­di­tions. In recent years, farm­ers have also start­ed using bio fer­tilis­ers such as ver­mi­com­post pro­duced in their back­yard and growth pro­mot­ers such as pan­cha­gavya, amrit pani etc. These prac­tices make mil­let pro­duc­tion not only eco-friend­ly but stays under the con­trol of farm­ers. Less demand for fer­til­iz­ers also helps aquat­ic habi­tats and dis­cour­ages pol­lut­ing indus­tries. In a time when most farm­ers get into severe debts for pur­chas­ing chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers, and end their lives as a result, encour­ag­ing mil­lets is a step towards help­ing them.

Resistant to pests

Some mil­lets like the Fox­tail mil­let are com­plete­ly pest free. Oth­er mil­lets don’t need chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides to grow as their seed coats are strong and deter most insects. Unlike oth­er grains, mil­lets are resis­tant to most pests, which means that the farmer need not spend mon­ey buy­ing harm­ful pes­ti­cides. This also ensures that the farmer’s health is not affect­ed by spray­ing pes­ti­cides and most of the mil­let fields are healthy with­out the pres­ence of chem­i­cals. Sim­ple tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of pest con­trol will take care of the pests. The next time you buy mil­lets, you need not wor­ry about the “organ­ic” tag, because most mil­lets are cul­ti­vat­ed pes­ti­cide-free any­way. Most of them are not affect­ed by stor­age pests either. They are nature’s boon to the agri­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty.

Millets as Climate Change Compliant Crops

Mil­lets are not only adapt­able to wide range of geo­graph­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions but also resilient to agro-cli­mat­ic vari­a­tions.

Due to all the qual­i­ties men­tioned above, Mil­lets remain our agri­cul­tur­al answer to the cli­mate cri­sis that the world is fac­ing. Cli­mate Change is expect­ed to con­front us with three chal­lenges.

~ Increase in tem­per­a­ture upto 2–5 degree Cel­sius

~ Increas­ing water stress

~ Severe mal­nu­tri­tion

And mil­lets have the capac­i­ty to meet these chal­lenges:

~ They can with­stand high­er heat regimes and tem­per­a­tures upto 46 degrees Cel­sius.

~ Mil­lets grow under non-irri­gat­ed con­di­tions in such low rain­fall regimes as between 200 mm and 500 mm. Thus, they can also face the water stress and grow.

Every one of the mil­lets is a store­house of dozens of nutri­ents in large quan­ti­ties. They include major and micronu­tri­ents need­ed by the human body. Hence they can help peo­ple with­stand mal­nu­tri­tion.

It is impor­tant to note that with the pro­ject­ed 2 degree cel­sius tem­per­a­ture rise, wheat might 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 under cli­mate change con­di­tions. Mil­lets are not just food; they are an inte­gral part of the cul­ture of thou­sands of com­mu­ni­ties all over the coun­try. It is a food that is so deeply inte­grat­ed into the cul­ture of com­mu­ni­ties.

As con­sumers, we are the key deci­sion mak­ers who not only decide what we, our fam­i­ly and friends eat, but also decide the future of our food sys­tem. When we opt for health­i­er and more sus­tain­able foods in the mar­ket, the demand for such food increas­es and retail­ers also start procur­ing these foods. Trends are bound to move towards sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

And always remem­ber:

Farm­ers grow what we eat and retail­ers sell what we buy. It is nev­er the oth­er way round.

So, here are two sim­ple and deli­cious Pearl mil­let (Kam­bu) recipes, you must try this Sum­mer.

Kambu kolukattai

*Grind 1 cup of kam­bu in a mix­ie, such that the par­ti­cles become coarse, that is, they are of the size of rava.

*Roast this in a kadai till a pleas­ant smell wafts.

* Next, in anoth­er pan, add 1 tsp of oil and sauté kadugu(mus­tard), ulun­thu (black gram), kadala parup­pu(Ben­gal gram), cur­ry leaves, green chill­ies, onion(optional), along with fresh grat­ed coconut.

*To this, add the ground and roast­ed kam­bu and ¾ cup of water, and mix well, the way we do while prepar­ing upma (In Tamil, on can say kelari vidu) till it becomes thick and reach­es a con­sis­ten­cy where we can hold it in our hand and mould kolukat­tais out of it. It is also impor­tant to ensure that the kam­bu has boiled – need not be com­plete­ly boiled, but at least par­tial­ly boiled.

*After mak­ing the kolukat­tais, steam them in the idli mak­er for 10 min­utes, till they are com­plete­ly boiled.

*Serve hot.

Kam­bu Semi­ya and Kolukat­tai

Kam­bu Semi­ya

*Soak the kam­bu semi­ya in cold water, and drain the water after 2 min­utes.

*Steam the kam­bu semi­ya in an idli mak­er (Ensure that the cloth is first placed on the pans in the idli mak­er before adding the kam­bu semi­ya) for 10 min­utes

*In a kadai, add oil and sauté kadugu(mus­tard), ulun­thu (black gram), kadala parup­pu(Ben­gal gram), cur­ry leaves, green chill­ies, onions(optional).

*To this, add the steamed kam­bu semi­ya and fry for some time.

*Turn off the flame and add a dash of lemon juice. (Alter­na­tive­ly, a small quan­ti­ty of chopped toma­toes can be added while fry­ing. The quan­ti­ty of chopped toma­toes should be such that the dish does not turn sog­gy).

Do try these at home, and let us know in the Com­ments box below 🙂

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