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What are millets, and how can they contribute to global food security?

What are millets, and how can they contribute to global food security?

Women sitting in front of hut with big bowls of with millets

People living in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, which rely heavily on food imports, are feeling Russia’s impact on Ukraine. This is a great example of how interconnected our world is. In peacetime, the two countries collectively meet almost a third of global wheat and a quarter of barley demands as well cater to two-thirds of the world’s sunflower oil needs. 

The Ukraine has not released a forecast for its 2022 grain harvest, but warned this week about Russia’s blockade in Black Sea ports, which could lead to the loss tens of million of tons of Ukrainian grain. 

Robert Onyeneke, an economist at the Alex Ekwueme Federation University in Nigeria, believes that the world is already suffering from such a crisis. He said that the crisis “is growing everywhere” and could “be here for a while.”  

According to Onyeneke, it’s time for us to look at alternatives to staples like wheat and rice. Onyeneke believes millets could be an option. They are a family of small-seeded, variable grasses. There are four reasons.

He stated, “Their nutritional content and climate resilience, short maturation period, low carbon emissions, and short maturity time put them in the limelight.

New era for old grains

Millets have existed since 3000 BC. They are thought to be among the oldest domesticated plants. They were long staple crops for millions of farmers in India, China and many other parts Africa. 

They are sometimes called “nutri-cereals” because of their high levels iron, fibre, and certain vitamins. They are still grown in over 130 countries. They are often considered food for the poor, but they play a small role in the diets and lives of approximately 90 million people in Africa or Asia. 

By comparison, around half the global population relies on rice, and more than one third on wheat. 

Women sitting in front of hut with big bowls of with millets

Millet is the main crop of the Sahel, where it is difficult to cultivate other crops due to the lack of rain.

However, 2023 being declared the UN International Year of Millets could signal that the fortunes of this humble, ancient grain are on the verge of changing. Experts say that this would be a positive thing. The cereal’s health benefits are not only due to its ability to thrive even in harsh environments. This is a great promise in a world that is undergoing climate change.

Millets can grow in hot and drought-stricken areas, but they also require far less water than wheat or rice. But that’s not all. 

“In terms harvest, the maturity time is shorter. Some millets reach maturity in 60-90 days, Onyeneke said, adding that millets emit little or no greenhouses gases unlike rice cultivation which contributes significantly to methane emissions. 

Adding to the list of advantages, the UN points out that millets require little by way of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and can boost soil quality through intercropping with other plants. 

Is the world ready to grow more millet in the future?

According to Onyeneke, millet production can’t even meet local demands in Asia and Africa, let alone generate enough to export. He said that this is why the state needs to intervene.

“Millet cultivation can easily be re-established with the help of subsidies and regulated procurement.” 

Woman processing millet

Subsidies could help increase the cultivation of millets in India as well as Africa.

In order to increase cultivation, there is also a need to increase processing. India is one of the world’s top millet producers. However, the 1960s green revolution has left behind a legacy that means the infrastructure for processing is not as it should be. In an effort to combat famine, crop subsidy and massive agricultural industrialization favored wheat and rice back then.

Vilas Tonapi, director of Indian Institute of Millets Research says in order to tip the balance, the focus should be on varieties such as pearl and finger millets whic need less processing.

“Infrastructure used for wheat can handle the processing of these millets with a little tweak,” he said, adding “we should also develop infrastructure for processing small grains which have husks.

E.D. E.D. And he calls it a “four step strategy.” 

“Seed conservation efforts to select elite seeds, large-scale demonstration cultivation to test genetic variants, customization of processing technology, image creation through global foods festivals and recipe creation.

Scaling up sustainably

Dwijendra Nath Guru, an advocate and activist for sustainable food systems and founder of the Bengaluru-based resource and support organization, the Millet Foundation warns against simply replacing the consumption of one type of grain with another in a way that would create a new monoculture of crop dependence.

“And we can’t have a euro-centric, narrow policy that just deprives developing countries from their share of grains that will be exported.

According to the FAO the traditional south American seed production grew by more than a quarter of a million tons after the UN declared 2013 the International year Quinoa.  The Andean region where quinoa was long a local crop saw a drastic change in its economic and social structure.

Soaring demand led farmers to shorten the normally long fallow periods between harvests that allowed the land to recover, causing some harvests to go bust. This was bad for soil health and also posed a risk to farmers’ food security.

Millet plants ripe with grains

Millet is available in many varieties

Guru also says it is vital to secure a minimum price for millet farmers. 

“Alternatively, it often ends up benefi ing only middlemen and not farmers.

Vettavalan Manikandan agrees. He is the president and chief executive of a Tamil Nadu Farming Association, which is aiming to increase production in the southern Indian State. He said that while pearl millet can be purchased in my village for 10 cents per kilogram, the same millet can be packaged and branded for around one euro in urban supermarkets. 

He believes a growing global demand for millets would see cultivation move from dry to fertile lands where the yield would be of both higher in quality and quantity  perhaps helping to change the stigma attached to this unsung grain.

King, ethnobotanist and Ethnobotanist, believes that perceptions are already shifting. He is optimistic about millet’s future role. 

He stated that millet production can be a pillar of global food safety if technology and recipe development are improved.

Edited by Tamsin Walker

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