- Once considered a low-status food, recent recognition of climate resilience and health benefits from millets has prompted a “Millet Revival”.
- The “Millet Revival” potentially redresses some of the downsides of the Green Revolution, but also raises similar risks of inequitable access and loss of genetic diversity.
- Learnings from the Green Revolution can inform implementation of the Millet Revival. Issues that need immediate attention are: conservation of genetic diversity across varieties to avoid genetic narrowing to a few commercial millets; accessible and affordable millets for small-holder farmers that provide options to less nutritious, cheaper cereals; technologies for processing that maintain nutrients in processed millet products.
- The views of this commentary are those of the authors.
The Green Revolution, beginning in the 1960s, changed the landscape for agriculture in India and permeated into the national diet. Farmers rapidly adopted high-yielding wheat and rice varieties that required irrigation, fertiliser and other inputs. Within a few decades, wheat and rice production more than doubled. Consequently, the proportion of nutri-cereals (previously called coarse-cereals) in India’s grain basket declined. Dietary patterns reflected the changes in production as people shifted consumption away from nutri-cereals towards refined and polished cereals. In the decades following the Green Revolution, iron and other micro-nutrients in the diets of the poorest rural populations declined most severely compared with higher income rural and urban populations.
Current efforts to promote nutri-cereals, such as the United Nations International Year of the Millet, attempt to reverse some of these trends. While exciting and promising to have the spotlight turn on nutritious and climate-resilient millets, it is prudent to consider how this revival can learn from the lessons of the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution’s legacy is mixed. On the positive side, it alleviated famines, enabled national food sovereignty, and pulled many farmers out of poverty. On the negative side, it mirrored the global trend towards lower genetic diversity in crop species; created inequities in access to inputs and markets; and brought a raft of environmental problems from heavy use of agri-chemicals and high water-demanding crops. In hindsight, these negative consequences could have been alleviated with government and private sector actions such as maintaining production of millets in parts of the country where they are traditionally grown and striving for diversified diets with multiple nutrients in addition to sufficient calories.
A key lesson from the Green Revolution is that seemingly silver-bullet solutions inevitably reveal their downsides over time. Without a way to quickly identify and correct problems, the negative effects become entrenched and difficult to change. For example, upland converted to paddy to grow rice cannot now be easily converted back to millets.
The last several years have witnessed a remarkable upswing in the interest in millets. Millets, including major millets bajra (pearl millet), jowar (sorghum), and ragi (finger millet) as well as minor millets such as small millets (kutki), kodo, kagni (foxtail millet) and many more – are far superior to milled rice from a nutritional point of view. They contain high content of iron and other micro-nutrients and a relatively low glycemic index preferable for diabetics. From an agricultural point of view, millets grow in harsh soil conditions and require less water than wheat and rice. Many studies empirically show that millet yields are less sensitive to rainfall and temperature variations than rice, which is not surprising based on the water-efficient photosynthetic machinery of tropical grasses. Millets’ relatively short growing season and long shelf life make them particularly useful in times of climatic and economic stress.
Millets, considered a low-status food for many decades, are now attractive in urban markets to high-end consumers for their superior nutritional properties. The government has also recognised their value for nutrition and climate resilience, which is particularly relevant in light of climate change. Millets were notified as “nutri-cereals” in 2018 and more recently as “Sri anna”. State programs such as the Odisha Millet Mission are distributing millets in the Public Distribution System. Millets are increasingly included in other public food procurement programs, such as Mid-day Meal Programs (now called as PM POSHAN) and the supplementary feeding program under the Integrated Child Development Services. While it is not possible to foresee whether these initiatives will lead to millets regaining their status as a staple in the Indian diet, a millet revival is palpable.
The millet revival holds great promise for reversing some of the negative effects of the Green Revolution. Loss of nutrients in diets due to the dominance of rice could be turned around. Farmers’ vulnerability to climactic fluctuations and scarce water availability could be lessened. At this juncture, the revival seems like a promising way forward. But in the exuberance of celebrating the revival, we need to be cognizant of the potential downsides. Early action to address these downsides can steer the revival in a positive direction for the country.
One concern about the millet revival is potential loss of genetic diversity in the rush to increase millet yields and maximise production. Genetic diversity across species and varieties is the bedrock for future adaptation to changing climate; diversity in crops has enabled humanity to weather swings in climate for millennia. With the mega-drought that hit the Harrappan Civilisation about 4000 years ago, for example, the archeological record shows that drought-resistant millets became more prominent in cropping systems previously dominated by wheat and barley. Diversity to maintain options in the face of climate change is no less important today.
The major millets bajra, jowar, and ragi are easier to process and more widely-grown than many local, small-seeded millets such as kutki, kagni, and kodo. These locally-adapted millets, each with many varieties, store a vast amount of genetic diversity. Yields are lower than the major millets and their local distribution makes commercial-scale production, collection, and processing more difficult. With a rush to commercialise millets, these local varieties and the accompanying knowledge about how to grow and prepare them may suffer the same fate as landraces in the Green Revolution. More than 1 lakh varieties of indigenous rice were lost in the decades following the introduction of high-yielding hybrids. A similar trend occurred in Bolivia with the 2013 International Year of Quinoa; genetic diversity of quinoa declined as production focused on popular, commercial varieties. Seed banks, living landscapes, and short supply chains that preserve knowledge and allow local varieties to evolve are notoriously underfunded and undervalued. The millet revival should pay particular attention to maintaining the vast diversity of species and varieties of different kinds of millets, including research focused on improved yields through multi-cropping.
Another potential concern about the millet revival is the impacts on diets when traditional, subsistence crops become cash crops. In Ethiopia, for example, the high price of teff caused poor farmers who produce the cereal to eat less of it than affluent urban consumers.
Despite the decline in production and consumption of millets with the Green Revolution, millets are still produced for subsistence particularly by tribal populations in hilly regions. As these millets become commercially attractive, a concern is that these populations will be incentivised to sell their millets and purchase less nutritious, polished cereals from the Public Distribution System. While people should have agency over decisions about their diets and more income from selling millets could lead to better diets, the possibility of negative impacts from selling millets is plausible. Public food procurement programs that procure millets could complete the cycle of bringing the millets back to the plates of small holder farming households. Promoting local economies and food cooperatives for millet procurement and redistribution in the community could be promising. Monitoring changes in diets in nutritionally-sensitive populations and ensuring that millets are affordable could forestall further erosion in diets of vulnerable populations.
Read more: [Explainer] Why is 2023 the International Year of Millets? What do we achieve by celebrating such years?
Finally, a third concern is to ensure that the nutritional promise of the millet revival is realised. The nutrient content of rice promoted in the Green Revolution is inferior to lower-yielding traditional varieties, a warning that higher yields do not necessarily translate into better nutritional outcomes. Polished, milled rice that became prevalent in the Green Revolution contains fewer nutrients than less processed, traditional varieties. Processed products from millets, such as biscuits, noodles, and snack products, strip the outer layers from millets and reduce the nutritional benefits. Ultra-processed foods that are high in salt, sugar and fats and low in millet content could mislead the public in the name of “healthy food.” Affordable, convenient, and tasty millet products with minimal processing can ensure that the potential benefits reach the population.
The millet revival holds great promise to bring climate-resilience to farmers in India and help improve people’s nutritional status, particularly the nutritionally-vulnerable rural poor. It can overcome some of the problems created by the Green Revolution as climate change bears down on the country. But we should not be blindsided in our enthusiasm for the revival. We should keep our eyes on its progress and possible pitfalls so that the potential can be fulfilled for the largest number of people, particularly the most vulnerable who have traditionally produced and consumed this superfood.
Ruth DeFries is an environmental geographer and a professor at Columbia University. Suparna Ghosh-Jerath is the Program Head, Nutrition at The George Institute for Global Health-India.
Banner image: Pearl millet grown in Aurangabad. Millets, considered a low-status food for many decades, are now attractive in urban markets to high-end consumers for their superior nutritional properties. Photo by लोकपर्याय, लोणी-खु ता.वैजापूर,जि.औरंगाबाद/Wikimedia Commons.