Opinion Piece by ICRISAT’s Dr Shalander Kumar, Deputy Research Program Director, Enabling Systems Transformation; Dr Abhishek Das, Scientist; and Dr ML Jat, Research Program Director, Resilient Farm and Food Systems. Originally published in Ideas For India.
31 October 2023, New Delhi: Following a proposal by India, the year 2023 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Millets. Present global agri-food systems face multiple challenges, including not just hunger but the triple burden of malnutrition.
Malnutrition continues to be one of India’s most significant challenges (Chandra 2022). In 2022, despite the country running the largest food public distribution systems (PDS), which feeds over 800 million people, India was ranked 107 out of 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index.
Millets can make a big contribution in achieving the goal of food security and nutrition for India and other countries across the world. Millets, also referred to as ‘nutri-cereals’ and ‘Shree Anna’, include sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), foxtail millet (kangani/kakun/korra) and buckwheat (kuttu) among others and are a powerhouse of nutrients.
Owing to their higher protein levels and a more balanced amino acid profile, they are nutritionally superior to wheat, rice and maize, and contain phytochemicals which exert anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties.
Millet grains are a rich source of dietary fiber, good quality fat, minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, zinc, and B complex vitamins, and are considered helpful in managing Type 2 diabetes and obesity (Rao et al. 2018, Anitha et al. 2021).
Millets are also climate resilient crops and grown under water-scarce conditions, making them future-ready crops for ensuring food security under the current climate crisis.
Changing trends in the demand for millets
Traditionally, many foods and beverages in different regions in India were made from sorghum and millets, which played an important role as a staple nutritious food in the local food culture. However, trends based on NSSO data reveal that consumption of sorghum and millets at the all-India level has declined drastically in the past few decades, both in rural and urban areas.
Between 1991-92 and 2011-12, the annual per capita consumption of sorghum declined sharply by 73.49% (from 9.96 to 2.64 kilogram) in rural areas and by 60.60% (3.96 to 1.56 kilogram) in urban areas. Similar trends have also been observed in ongoing micro-level studies. This drastic decline in per capita consumption of sorghum and millet has been mainly driven by policies that promote wheat and rice through minimum support price (MSP) and PDS.
Other factors for the change in consumption behavior away from millets include an increase in per capita income, growing urbanisation, convenience of other grain such as rice and wheat and their products, changing tastes and preferences, globalisation and an excessive focus on non-millets’ processed foods. Long term distortions through policy and market forces have led to a change in consumer behaviour and thus decreased relative demand.
At the same time, commercial crops like cotton and maize became more attractive due to their technology-led yield enhancements and relatively more developed value chains. As a result, the cultivation of millets was pushed to marginal lands with lower productivity potential, with the FAO database revealing that between 1990-2020, cropped area declined by 62% for sorghum and 36% for millets. Thus, the decline in production and consumption of millets was due to both demand and supply side drivers and policy signals.
On a positive note, there is a growing realisation among health-conscious consumers and policy makers of the potential of these nutrient-rich gluten-free cereals in addressing malnutrition and achieving multiple health outcomes for the country.
At present, through recently launched National and State Millet Missions, the Government of India, and several states like Odisha, Maharashtra, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and others are attempting to promote the production, distribution, and consumption of millets as nutritious and resilient crops to address malnutrition and climate vulnerability, especially in dry areas.
Strengthening the millets value chain
In the last couple of years, nutritionists, environmentalists, and the government have been promoting the nutritive value of millets and sorghum in a big way. Still, these awareness efforts did not convert into significant demand because of multiple socioeconomic, cultural, and market-related factors.
Rather, it resulted in an undesirable market phenomenon wherein the price of millets and its flour has become too high for urban consumers, and the price realised by producers is much lower. For instance, during the last harvest in 2022-23, farmers in north India received a much lower price for pearl millet than the MSP.
There are a few factors that contribute to this: poorly functioning millet value chains mean that small processors bear high costs, as they need to establish new markets through retailers who charge high margins. Due to a lack of consistent demand and public procurement, the price at the time of harvest is also not optimal.
Further, since millets flours have a relatively short shelf life (20-30 days), companies consider selling it at a higher price to cover their costs and ensure the sustainability of their business; several of them also target wealthier, health-conscious customers, leading to an increase in the market price.
Thus, the millets have become unaffordable for a large proportion of urban consumers (especially lower income groups), while rural consumers – of whom more than two-third get subsidised wheat and rice at Rs. 2-3 per kilogram – may not be willing to buy millets at Rs. 30-40 per kilogram. Thus, the cultivation of millets remains economically less attractive for farmers in most cases.
So far, the efforts of the government led by Prime Minister Modi have resulted in significant increase in awareness of the benefits of millets among different stakeholders, especially health-conscious urban consumers.
The current momentum, along with incubation support by institutions like the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research – Indian Institute of Millets Research (ICAR-IIMR) has encouraged several entrepreneurs and start-ups, as well as big private players like ITC, TATA, Hindustan Unilever, Britannia, etc., to get into millets processing.
However, the millets value chain remains broken. Processed millets products are only a small proportion of total cereals consumption, as its consumer price has gone beyond the reach of low-income consumers who face the greatest nutritional challenges.
Though there are a few success stories of millet processors, like in the case of Millet Amma, Troo Good in Hyderabad, and 24 Mantra, most face a set of challenges which include inconsistent supply of millet grains throughout the year, limited shelf-life of millet flours, lack of regular demand, lack of suitable processing machines and high demand for margins by retailers in the absence of proper supply chains.
The government appears to have good intentions to increase millets demand for the benefit of farmers as well as consumers. To achieve this, the first step would be to increase the public procurement of millets. However, at present government procurement of pearl millet and sorghum is only 1 to 3% of their total domestic production, as compared to 45 to 70% for wheat and rice.
The situation of finger millet is a bit better, with about 15% of the total production being procured by government agencies. It is good news that the government has planned to procure more than two million tonnes of millets during 2023-24 – however coordinated efforts between central and state governments will be needed to achieve this.
Strategies for promoting millet cultivation and consumption
The first and foremost priority should be to make millets production economically competitive for farmers through both supply and demand side interventions considering short- and long-term horizons. While designing policies for promoting millets production, there is a need to remain conscious of the national food security aspect.
The government has a plan to increase the annual millets production from its current level of less than 18 million tonnes to 45 million tonnes by 2030. At present the average millet productivity is 1 to 1.5 tonnes per hectare (t/ha), which is much lower than the average productivity of rice. Thus, any effort to shift area under cultivation from rice to millets without proper targeting may have serious implications for the food security of the country.
Therefore, the strategy for promoting nutritious and climate resilient millets may consider the following policy actions:
i) Expansion and productivity enhancement: There is need to identify the most suitable domains for millets production in different agro-ecosystems covering every state through multi-dimensional crop suitability analysis. There would be several districts where millets may be much more competitive as compared to rice and other competing crops, and could be grown without compromising national food security.
In our cost-benefit analysis at the district level and taking 3-5 years’ time horizon for a few major states of India (namely Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Bihar), we found millets were on average more profitable than the rainfed upland rice in several districts.
The study examined 125 major rice growing districts with an average yield of 1.53 t/ha. Similarly, 50 maize growing districts with an average yield of 1.46 t/ha, mainly in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal. Such districts, where the average productivity of upland rice and maize, or ‘competing crops’, is less than 2 t/ha, could be the potential areas to target cultivation of millets.
Besides yield levels and direct economic returns, location-specific demand for fodder for livestock can also be a factor in prioritisation. Additionally, millets cultivation would benefit from strengthening need-based seed systems for scaling high yielding cultivars and high potential landraces1, and increased R&D investment for breaking yield barriers. Scale appropriate mechanisation is also important for improving millet crops efficiency, resilience and to reduce drudgery for farmers.
ii) Demand creation: As per various estimates, at present millets and sorghum constitute on average about 6-7% of India’s staple diet2. Nutritionists suggest that it can be increased to 15-20%, which presents a potential to increase the domestic demand for millets three- to four-fold.
There are five main areas where the government can intervene to influence the demand:
(a) public procurement and inclusion of millets into PDS, mid-day meals, Anganwadi centres, government supported meal programmes, hostels and canteens;
(b) encouraging the integration of millets into large scale non-government community kitchens like Akshayapatra, as well as private hostels;
(c) enhancing awareness of the nutritive value of millets and sorghum;
(d) providing policy support to various actors for increasing easy accessibility and convenience of use; and
(e) promoting industrial use of millets in animal feed, brewing, textiles, biofuels, pharmaceuticals. The first step of increased public procurement and its inclusion in the PDS is necessary but not sufficient to change consumption behaviour. Therefore, there is a need for concerted efforts on enhancing awareness and nutritional education of all through involving various stakeholders.
iii) Efficient supply and value chains: Though the current system of public procurement managed by Food Corporation of India is decentralised to the states, the procurement and distribution of millets may need to be more decentralised to smaller administrative units. A district or a cluster of districts may be enabled to become local centres for millet production, procurement, processing, and distribution.
This will reduce the costs of transport and storage and minimise the risk of spoilage during storage and increase accessibility. Each district may be authorised to procure and distribute millets to PDS, mid-day meals, Anganwadi centres, government supported meal programmes, hostels and canteens.
Though the domestic market would remain the primary source of demand, but the export demand for millets products is likely to increase too – especially niche markets of high-income countries. We can take advantage of this potential increase in global demand only if the domestic supply and value chains are put in order.
Supporting the exports of processed millets by engaging with SMEs and large private sector players, increasing R&D investment on increasing shelf-life and creating convenience products that retain nutrition, and using small-scale processing machinery to process at different scales needs to be prioritised.
iv) Incentives through green/carbon credits: Emission reduction due to the potential shift from rice production to millets production in the uplands has high potential to generate carbon credits, which could provide additional incentives for the farmers. However, science-backed efforts are needed to harness this emerging opportunity.
Finally, millets may be treated as nature’s gift to the mankind. Promoting millets can be critical to achieve India’s nutritional outcomes, improve agricultural resilience and ensure food security in future. A well thought out, science backed, data-driven strategy and enabling policies such as those mentioned in this piece would be essential to achieve the desired goal.
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