Fad to Global Super Food: What India Needs To Do To Promote Millets

The new thrust on millets by the government, as evidenced in the recent Union budget, is welcome. But, to succeed as a global superfood, India needs to rework its millet strategy.

Bajra tarlets, Kodo Kheer, Ragi Dosa, Porso Papaddam are some of the wholesome gluten-free meals served these days in some of the major government functions and private meetings across India. The moot point here is whether this will positively impact the farmers of Shree Anna (mother of all grains) – as Union finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, referred to millets in her Union Budget 2023 speech.

Over the past few years, millets have been branded as a superfood, diet for all human ailments, climate-smart, good for soil health, and much more. They are depicted as emblematic of India’s “forgotten great culture and tradition”. This has naturally led to a focus on millet farmers who have been struggling with stagnant yields and declining incomes. However, there is no conclusive number of millet farmers in the country, as only 11% of the total sown area for food grains is under millets, which, in turn, account for just 6% of foodgrain output.

Given the shift in the discourse in favour of millets, several national and state-level support schemes have been announced for millet farmers. At India’s request, the United Nations announced the year 2023 as the ‘International Year of the Millet’. India wishes to use its G20 Presidency this year as an opportunity to showcase to the world the benefits of millets and expand the markets for them. Towards this end, India has planned as many as 19 mega-global events, by roping in various stakeholders, including climate change activists, startups, government agencies, among others. However, the tepid response from the farmers themselves is worrying.

Since the launch of the National Mission in 2018, there has either been a decline or stagnation in the number of farmers, acreage, farm gate prices, among others. This explains the disconnect between the government’s ambitious plans and millet farmers. According to the Economic Survey 2023, India’s average yield of millets is 1,239 kg/ha, which is a quarter of what farmers usually get from paddy or wheat.

Also read: How Millets Can Make India’s Food Basket More Climate-Resilient

The recently presented Budget has also promised efforts toward promoting domestic consumption, and national and international branding of millets. It has also announced that a five-year plan, involving various ministries and departments, will be drawn up to promote millets. Such efforts by the government in promoting millets are indeed promising.

Missing Green Revolution ecosystem

The success of the Green Revolution and wheat-rice crowding out of millets was driven by the national galvanisation for food sufficiency with a farmer-centric ecosystem getting the MKT (market, capital, technology) right. Additionally, a combination of facilitating factors on production side, such as high-yielding cultivators, irrigation, and assured buy-back through the MSP-PDS regime, also contributed to the success.

From a state of deficit, India today is the second largest producer of rice and wheat in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The USDA has projected that India’s rice exports this year would be at a record high, and wheat exports this year would be the highest in the last eight years. Together, these exports amount to a value of Rs 1 lakh crore for India.

The magnitude of this achievement needs to be understood on the back of the record 92 million tonnes (mt) of rice and wheat distributed last year from the central pool under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY).

Can we replicate this for millets?

In Asia, India contributes to 80% of millet production, and globally, India’s share is 20%. But, this has not translated into income for millet farmers in India. For farmers to make gains financially, we need a comprehensive approach to make millet cultivation income-smart beyond millets merely being climate/water/soil-smart. Millets today occupy a marginal mind space of India’s farming community.

High iron pearl millet. Photo: ICRISAT/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

Our research also has to stop viewing millets as ‘marginal crops’ in ‘marginal lands’. Technology is critical to ensure this. The announcement by Union finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, to bestow the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) with Centre of Excellence (CoE) status is a welcome step. The move will help in contributing to the global millet ecosystem, given its growing importance in India and abroad.

The other measures announced in the Budget to support processing and production-linked incentives for millet-based products would also, hopefully, lead to a boost in the demand for millets. The focus on accentuating and riding on increased health consciousness and new consumer trends, through a range of exciting, healthy, incompatible, and unpalatable millet recipes generates much curiosity and interest but not the kind of follow-on buying or consumption.

The fad-to-food approach can’t be driven on the back of a small and vocal chatterati class of consumers in India. There is a need to better understand the progress of millet distribution under NFSA and the impact on mass consumption. Cuisine and recipe development of millets are also one of the weakest, yet potentially most impactful links to sustain demand.

But, this will need millets to be encapsulated in a popular culture of cuisines, mainstreaming and slowly permeating into the culture of the local communities. The Raigarh Millets Café, supported by the Raigarh district administration and Transform Rural India Foundation (TRIF), is a great example of such a model.

The Qunioa example is good but requires investments in high-quality food safety, traceability, and infrastructure for the export market. This would require large private sector participation, for relying on do-good NGOs, FPOs or sundry government departments can’t get this superfood to global supermarkets. It has to be backed by good research, which covers production, improving productivity, nutraceuticals, and how millets are deeply rooted in our food culture.

Women have to be at the centre of the millet ecosystem from pre-production, production to consumption, as there is strong evidence that women’s economic empowerment impacts and strengthens the millets-nutrition linkages.

There is a need to push on four important dimensions of asset-isation, entitlements, services and market support for millets. An incentive structure for the private sector to launch millets as go-to cereals in the global market is critical for sustained demand growth. IIMR, ICRISAT, and allied institutions in the millet ecosystem can help leverage the key announcements in the Union Budget and build a roadmap for boosting production, procurement, and to increase the income of millet farmers.

A robust millets ecosystem needs an all-round 360-degree approach to production, supply of quality seeds, input support, social safety nets for millets, women as a driving force, decentralised processing, value chain development, market support, household consumption promotion, innovations, welfare schemes (Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meal and PDS), procurement support and other policy incentives for breaking the initial inertia and imbalance around millets.

Neeraja Nitin Kudrimoti is the lead and action pilots head in Chhattisgarh at Transforming Rural India Foundation.