A short history of millets and how we are recognising their importance in the modern context
The history of food, especially in the Indian context, will be left incomplete without giving due importance to millets. As I explore slower and healthier lifestyle of humans, I realise that some of the most beautiful practices have been left behind. And for working towards a better future, we’ll need to reclaim some of these values. Millets provide us an interesting case study.
Millets and the history
Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for human food and as fodder. There is evidence of the cultivation of millet in the Korean Peninsula dating to the Middle Jeulmun Pottery Period (around 3,500–2,000BC). In India, millets have been mentioned in some of the oldest Yajurveda texts, identifying foxtail millet (priyangava), Barnyard millet (aanava) and black finger millet (shyaamaka), thus indicating that millet consumption was very common, pre-dating to the Indian Bronze Age (4,500BC).
Even until 50 years ago millets was the major grain grown in India. From a staple food and integral part of local food cultures, just like many other things, millets have come to be looked down upon by modern urban consumers as “coarse grains” - something that their village ancestors may have lived on, but that they had left behind and exchanged for a more “refined” diet. Unfortunately, this said refined diet lacks the nutrients critically important for us (food should be as local and wholesome as possible).
Following the western model of development, India and other developing nations have lost out on a lot of useful and meaningful things. Food habits have been one of the biggest changes. We are quickly forgetting our indigenous foods and chasing standardisation. Millets too have been discarded as being too primitive to be used, forgetting the roots.
These changes, coupled with state policies that favour rice and wheat, have led to a sharp decline in millet production and consumption.
Before Green Revolution, millets made up around 40 percent of all cultivated grains (contributing more than wheat and rice). However, since the revolution, the production of rice has increased doubly and wheat production has tripled.
Reason for such government policy
There is a hypothesis that a tilt in government policies that work against millets, which grow very well in diverse, small-scale, low-input farming systems and are great for small farmers' livelihoods, is because they do not offer any profit for agro-chemical corporations, large food companies etc. So the promotion of rice and wheat, which lend themselves to high investments in machinery, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides etc., were a much more lucrative economic strategy.
In defence of the food policy strategists and governments one might add that at the time, many believed that chemical agriculture would improve yields and food security in the long run. Even though India is the world leader in terms of production of millets, it should not be forgotten that the share of millets in total grain production had dropped from 40 to 20 percent, leading to some serious agricultural, environmental and nutritional consequences. Rice has replaced millets as to be eaten directly, while wheat flour has replaced flours made out of millets, and is now used extensively to make Indian breads.
Winds of change for millets
Today, a lot of efforts are being put to increase the demand of millets in India and the world, including changing the mindset of the people. Many organisations are coming up in support of this cause. Efforts are being taken to educate farmers about better millets growing techniques. A lot of importance is given to them because of their non gluten tendency. Many recipes with millets as the base have been floating around too.
One example of a major boost for the cause can be given by the Smart Food campaign.
Smart Food with the tagline ‘good for you, good for the planet and good for the smallholder farmer’ is an initiative that will initially focus on popularising millets, and sorghum and has been selected by LAUNCH Food as one of the winning innovations for 2017.
Smart Food will be taken forward as a partnership and many organisations have already teamed up to popularise millets. In India, this includes Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR), National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).
Importance of different types of millets
According to Rohit Jain, Co-founder of Banyan Roots, an organic store selling products at reasonable and sustainable price points, “There are two broad categories of millets, namely major and minor millets. While pearl millet, sorghum, finger millet and foxtail millets come in the category of being the major millets, others such as sama, qodo, chinna etc., are considered minor millets. Many of the minor millets are endangered, as they are getting depleted, and some of them have even totally been eliminated.”
Each millet has an importance of its own. While some millets, such as finger millet, are full of calcium, some like jowar have potassium and phosphorus, and foxtail is fibrous while qodo is rich in iron. Therefore, it is advisable to keep rotating the kind of millets we are eating. We should also remember that we should not mix millets and should only eat one grain in a meal as each grain has its own requirement as the medium for digestion and mixing them can create imbalances in body.
Some important points regarding millets:
The way forward
There is a strong resurgence as far as millets are concerned, but from an individual’s point of view, it is important to know what one’s body is comfortable with and no drastic change should be made. Millets' popularity is slowly rising again and many efforts are going on to make them mainstream again. A balanced approach to bring this crop back in the public consciousness will go a long way to solve some of the major food issues in the country.