Can millets help pave the way to a sustainable future?

Cereal crops and grains are better for both health and the environment, with plenty embracing the benefits

According to researchers, millets require 70 per cent less water to grow than rice. Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Global food shortages are a direct result of the natural disasters and extreme weather events we are witnessing more of year after year. However, one crop that could offset shortfalls is millet, which is enjoying a revival due to its resilience to climate change and innovations in the culinary sector.

The United Nations has designated 2023 as the International Year of Millets as part of goals to end hunger, increase climate change action and develop a balance between sustainable consumption and production.

Here, The National looks at how this group of small-seeded grains and cereals, which were first planted in Asia more than 4,000 years ago, may help.

Millets for sustainability

Indian food studio Aragama offers dishes with millets, including one that combines them with tomato chutney and hung curd. Photo: Aragama

Unlike rice, millets require 70 per cent less water to grow, according to a study published by India's Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel University of Agriculture and Technology in October.

Additionally, in a review looking at millets for food security in the context of climate change published by Sustainability in 2018, researchers wrote: “Millets can be stored for a considerable amount of time under appropriate storage conditions, therefore making them famine reserves.” They also come with many nutritional benefits: millets are better for those with diabetes as they help maintain steady blood glucose levels, according to a 2021 Frontiers in Nutrition study. They are also non-glutinous and rich in iron, calcium and phosphorus, according to the Indian Institute of Millets Research.

Despite efforts from various quarters, including the UN, the area dedicated to growing millets remains small in comparison to traditional crops such as rice and wheat. “In 2023, we need to make sure the production of millets is increased. The [Indian] government, which is offering subsidies for rice and wheat, should also provide those kinds of incentives for farmers to grow more millets,” says Vijaya Raghavan, a James McGill Professor in the bioresource engineering department at McGill University in Canada. Raghavan has worked on projects aimed at scaling up millet production in South India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Professor Vijaya Raghavan wants to unlock the potential of millets. Photo: Alex Tran Photography

He adds that we require more elaborate genetic-related research to enhance millet productivity and develop machinery for post-harvesting processes such as dehusking and dehulling millets, something his team worked on with the DHAN Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works to help impoverished communities by making them self-reliant. Unlike easily removable rice husks, some millets — such as the barnyard millet — have up to seven layers. Great care and expertise are therefore required to remove only a part of the husk and maintain the millet’s nutritional quality.

But will people make the change and move towards millets over more commonly found and subsidised rice and wheat? From a food security point of view, Raghavan believes nutrition must be taken into account. "It's where small-scale industries can come up with innovative commodities and value addition can happen,” he adds.

A handful of start-ups and restaurants are currently doing exactly that.

Behold the millet market

A dish made using barnyard millets. Photo: Aragama

Suresh Kumar runs a millet-specific restaurant called Millet Maagic in Chennai with his wife, Adhieswari. The couple did not want to change the food habits of their customers, who are used to consuming idli and other regional dishes daily. Instead, they devised a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu with a twist.

“We have replaced rice and wheat with millets and made some dishes that are more contemporary and modern for the youth," says Kumar. "If you come as a family, we have a product for each age group, from infants to senior citizens."

Millet Maagic has also hired a baking consultant who makes millet cookies, pizzas, brownies and cakes.

Such innovation may be the trick to guide millets into the mainstream. Millets of Mewar is also doing something similar in the tourist destination of Udaipur, Rajasthan. To counter the perception by some that millets are a "poor man’s food", the team worked on developing a set of traditional and modern millet dishes, taking inspiration from tribal and local communities.

“We make tarts with bajra [pearl millet], pizzas with ragi [finger millet] and laddoos with bajra,” says co-owner Surendra Gandharva. "For millet chaat, we make puffs with jowar [sorghum], and khichdi and tikki with barnyard millets." The team have gradually grown their customer base and now cater to the rising demand through a second branch.

Revisiting age-old cooking techniques can also help people learn about millet varieties and how to use them. “Millets are not a glamorous ingredient, although they have been a part of our culinary heritage for a long time. We wanted to put that across and make people feel that what you have around you is also beautiful and nutritious,” says Poornima Somayaji, who offers a tasting menu at her food studio Aragma in Pune.

Poornima Somayaji says people eat millets more for health reasons than taste, a perception she's trying to change through her food studio Aragma. Photo: Poornima Somayaji

One of her popular dishes incorporates barnyard millets with grapes, peanuts and fenugreek seeds sauce. Another is a salad of lentils and millets made with sorghum, tomato chutney and hung curd. Somayaji says even more affluent customers, who did not consume millets earlier, have started experimenting with them in their diet. The millet phenomenon is not limited to India. Various ventures promote millets as healthy alternatives to traditional meals and snacks in the UAE, including start-up Farmchimp, which currently operates an online store featuring several millets and millet products sourced from Kerala, India.

“We have normal millets, millet flakes, and millet snacks like ragi pakoda and millet murukku,” says co-founder Kabeer PC. He adds that even though locals from his home state are the company’s foremost customers, residents in the UAE are showing interest in them, too.

“It's the first use they are concerned about: what will happen and how it will taste?” says Kabeer. But, after some initial hesitation, they often become repeat customers, he adds, with many using millet flakes in their smoothies and others enjoying millet noodles.

Future of millets

While production and consumption rates are increasing, whether or not millets are simply the next fleeting food fad or here to stay for longer remains to be seen, according to Somayaji.

“It is too soon to say whether eating millets as part of our daily diet is a trend. If people are going to catch up on it, it will be owing to the perception of healthiness,” says Somayaji.

Kabeer is more hopeful and wants to scale up the company's sourcing and marketing efforts. “More education is needed. People have to understand what millets are and how they help,” he says.

From the point of view of food security and sustainability, Raghavan says more investment in research and policy can help realise the true potential of millets. “It may not happen overnight, but there is a defined opportunity for governments to channel their resources to be able to achieve that," he says.

Updated: February 26, 2023, 4:04 AM