Urban India’s Quinoa Craze Is Further Endangering Millets

Celebrated by Hollywood stars for its health benefits, rising demand for the ‘miracle grain of the Andes’ is pushing its nutritional equal – traditional millets – further into a corner in India.

A few years ago, an ambitious rice farmer in the semi-arid terrain of Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district was on the hunt for an alternative crop to increase his profits. In 2013, Shankar Reddy finally hit upon the jackpot grain he had been waiting for: quinoa, traditionally grown by the Indians of the Andes in South America, which was rapidly becoming popular across the globe for its high nutritional value and gluten-free quality.

“I started growing quinoa two years ago because I realised it is highly profitable,” says Reddy, who cultivates the crop in 70 acres of the semi-arid lands of his district. Reddy’s decision was sound, as it turned out. Between 2006 and early 2013, quinoa prices tripled as the demand for the ‘miracle grain of the Andes’ shot up in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

With a high protein content of 14-18% and a rich presence of essential amino acids, quinoa has caught the attention of the  health-conscious, especially vegans and vegetarians. The United Nations celebrated 2013 as the ‘Year of Quinoa’ to highlight the values of the niche crop, especially its ability to grow on dry soil.

Quinoa farming and consumption in India is at a nascent stage, but groups promoting Indian varieties of millets, the small-seeded grasses that are the staple food of indigenous communities of the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa, are concerned over the possibility of quinoa eventually taking over locally grown millets.

Among other factors, they point to a recent initiative by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to research quinoa’s agronomical and nutritional values, even as research into Indian millets, which are of equally high quality, languishes.

Time to shift from rice

One out of every three children suffering from malnutrition in the world is in India. India also ranks second after China for having the most number of diabetes patients – thanks mostly to excessive white rice consumption and changing lifestyle habits.

Many experts, including the architect of Green Revolution M.S. Swaminathan, have called for diversifying crops and food preferences to eliminate high levels of nutrition deficiency, very often referred to as ‘hidden hunger’. In comparison to quinoa and millets, starch dominated white rice also performs poorly when it comes to nutritional parameters, as the table below shows.

Crop Proteins (g) Fiber (g) Minerals (g) Iron (mg) Calcium (mg)
Pearl millet 10.6 1.3 2.3 16.9 38
Finger millet 7.3 3.6 2.7 3.9 344
Foxtail millet 12.3 8 3.3 2.8 31
Proso millet 12.5 2.2 1.9 0.8 14
Kodo millet 8.3 9 2.6 0.5 27
Little millet 7.7 7.6 1.5 9.3 17
Barnyard millet 11.2 10.1 4.4 15.2 11
Rice 6.8 0.2 0.6 0.7 10
Wheat 11.8 1.2 1.5 5.3 41

Nutritional content per 100 gram of crop. Source: Deccan Development Society (DDS)

For the poor, especially the tribals in the highland areas and farmers in the dry regions, millets acted as a crucial nutrition supplement. However, ever since India’s Green Revolution brought with it high yielding varieties of rice and wheat, the cultivation area of millets has come down by over 45%. Rice and wheat overtook millets as state policies supported the former grains with large scale subsidies and by distributing them through the public distribution system.

What further tilts the scale against rice is the immense supply of fresh water it requires, and the substantial carbon footprint it leaves. As the climate crisis looms large in many parts of the country with deficient monsoons destroying crops year after year, these factors are prompting many experts to call for reducing our dependency on rice in favour of traditional crops such as millets, and lately, quinoa.

Pearl Millet crop. Photo: Max Pixel/CC0 Public Domain.

One of the first efforts in this direction is ‘Project Anantha’, a state-sponsored pilot project launched in 2013 in Andhra Pradesh, which sought to push quinoa, with its lower water intake, as an alternative crop in the dry terrain of Anantapur district. However, the project is dormant at the moment following the change in government, and is awaiting additional funds.

Quinoa vs. millets

The proponents of quinoa and millets bet on their adaptability to grow in arid and semi-arid agricultural lands, which is crucial in a country like India, where out of the total net sown area of 141 million hectares, rain fed area accounts only for nearly 85 Mha. Interestingly, rain-fed agriculture contributes about 45% of the country’s total food grain production, thus playing an important role in ensuring food security.

Millets like jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), ragi (finger millet), oilseeds like mustard and pulse crops like pigeon pea, gram and lentil are grown substantially in arid and semi-arid areas because of their drought resilient qualities. However, the market value of quinoa, which sells for up to Rs. 1600/kg in premium supermarkets, is more than 10 times that of millets, even though  both quinoa and millets are comparable in terms of nutritional value, as the table below shows.

Nutritional parameters/100g Quinoa Foxtail millet Proso millet Kodo millet
Energy 368 kcal 364 kcal 356 kcal 353 kcal
Fat 6 g 2.7 g 1.7 g 3.6 g
Fibre 7 g 3.5 g 1.7 g 6 g
Protein 14 g 10.5 g 10.6 g 9.8 g
Calcium 31.5 mg 14 mg 9 mg 35 mg
Iron 2.76 mg 4.8 mg 2.1 mg 1.7 mg
Carbohydrates 64 g 73.1 g 73 g 66 g

Quinoa v. millets. Source: Deccan Development Society (DDS)

Primary evidence from researchers and quinoa farmers also contradicts the claims that the grain can withstand extreme drought and can thrive the way millets do.

Dr. T. Giridhara Reddy, Associate Director of Research at Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University, Andhra Pradesh says that quinoa cultivation needs constant moisture unlike local millets. “Our trials in some parts of Kurnool district revealed that growing quinoa is not as easy as growing the local millets,” he says, adding that local millets survive without any monitoring by the farmer even when rainfall is scanty, which is not the case with quinoa.  Anantapur’s quinoa pioneer Shankar Reddy confirms this claim, saying he has to use drip-irrigation to provide the needed moisture to his crop.

Dr. T.G. Nageshwar Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR), calls quinoa a “pseudo cereal” and not a millet. While stating that quinoa is not the area of his institute’s research programmes, he adds that millets are the best contingency crops in drought prone areas of the country.

‘A civilisational loss’

Flax seeds. Photo: Steve Dean/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

A gradual shift to cash crops, leaving behind traditional crops and farming practices, is a pattern that has spread steadily across global agriculture systems over the last century or so. Crops such as soya, corn, maize, rubber etc., have constantly invaded Indian agriculture over the years, tempting farmers with unprecedented monetary benefits. It is in this context that activists and experts raise concerns about quinoa farming, since if the trend continues, it could eat up the already shrinking space for millet farming.

“It will be a civilisational loss if we forget millets and pursue quinoa,” says P.V. Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a community-level organisation based in Medak district of Telangana, which has been effectively aiding millet farmers in marketing and cultivation processes alike for more than two decades.

Satheesh suspects the involvement of US-based corporate entities behind the massive publicity campaign associated with quinoa. In a press conference organised in early August at Hyderabad, DDS, along with nutrition and health experts warned the public to be mindful of marketing propaganda associated with grains such as quinoa. While accepting the impressive qualities of quinoa, the panel unequivocally stated that Indians should prefer millets as they not only possess qualities similar to that of quinoa, but were also much cheaper, and more importantly, locally produced.

According to Satheesh, NRI businessmen returning from the US are trying to find a potential market for the product in India, and attempts are on to popularise quinoa with the help of celebrities. While stating that quinoa might be an ideal food choice for native south Americans, he said there is no study yet to prove the viability of the crop in India.

Satheesh, who is also the joint convener of the Millet Network of India (MINI), suggests that the government must take steps to include millets in the Public Distribution System (PDS) to help create demand for millets as well as raise awareness about their qualities. He stresses that unlike rice, millet faming is totally eco-friendly, does not require any irrigation facilities or external inputs and has a negligible carbon footprint, and therefore it is imperative that the government give incentives to farmers for their cultivation.

A long demand of millet activists in Telangana has been to declare the state as a ‘Millet State’, considering the potential of the crop in its dry lands. However, those who want to promote millet farming in the state and elsewhere must contend with the reasoning that drives quinoa farmers like Shankar Reddy.

“I started farming with 5 gm of quinoa seeds, now I sell quinoa in wholesale market for Rs. 500/kg. Why should I grow millets when it does not have a competitive price?” asks Reddy.