Why Millet Harvesting Is Good For Global Impact

Millets 

Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for fodder and human food.

Millets are high in fiber which give a feeling of satiety quickly, hence helping to reduce overeating. The food digests at a slower rate and keeps stomach full for a longer period of time.

Millet harvesting is good for global impact 

The discussion around millets has been gaining momentum in recent years. Millets are being hailed as ‘super crops’ globally. While the production and consumption of millets dates back centuries, it is only recently that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced 2023 to be the ‘Year of the Millets’ under India’s recommendation.

Millet cultivation is emerging as a feasible alternative in the face of global food insecurity, malnutrition, agrarian distress and climate change.

around 700 million people suffering from hunger worldwide. Millet cultivation is emerging as a feasible alternative in the face of global food insecurity, malnutrition, agrarian distress and climate change. African and Asian countries are most severely affected by undernourishment , with with around 700 million people suffering from hunger worldwide. Food security issues have been affecting all continents. With their high nutritional profiles, millets help to address these deficiencies and can evolve as promising solutions towards establishing healthy dietary patterns. Many regions like Africa and the Middle East have been drawing global attention towards depleting water levels. Water-efficient crops such as millets could be viable for cultivation in these areas, thereby lessening the burden imposed by current staple crops on the water table.

Making a case for millet cultivation is relevant in the present context where innovative patterns of land usage, more income avenues for farmers, and healthier options for consumers are the primary areas of focus.

Increasing Global Demand

In 2019, millets were the world’s 3,641st most-traded product, with a total trade of $201M. The past few years have seen a significant rise in the global demand for millets, with global exports growing by 44.8% between 2018 and 2019.

While India is the topmost producer for these grains, the United States leads the global contribution in exports with a share of around 30%. 50% of the millets produced globally are imported to Indonesia, Germany, Iran, Belgium, and South Korea, among others, establishing the Asia Pacific, Middle East and EU as regions of major global demand. While millets are mostly used for consumption, a proportion (7%) is employed for fuel and fodder as well.

Millets as viable crops in resource-constrained geographies

Rainfed agricultural conditions, requirement of minimal inputs, and indigenous know-how among farming communities make millets more relevant as an agricultural commodity in developing countries with similar geographical conditions. With the dominance of wheat and rice, millets represent less than 2 percent of world cereal utilization. Agricultural practices in the past few decades have strained water resources and affected the carrying capacity constraints on existing land. Hence, millets are regenerating interest as staple cereals in many countries in the semi-arid tropical regions of Africa and India, where low precipitation and degrading soil quality limit the cultivation of other major food crops. India itself is a major consumer and accounts for nearly 38% of the consumption of its domestic produce.

The demand for millets has seen a gradual revival mainly in regions where millets were historically consumed as staple grains. It is driven by renewed interest in their health benefits for an urban population with evolving dietary needs. This upward shift is mirrored by a global trend towards the adoption of organically grown ancient grains, that is, cereals that have undergone minimal genetic modification over the years. Millets that are produced with minimal inorganic inputs are the ideal choice to meet this demand. Millet-based products have also emerged as viable options for people who adopt plant-based or gluten-free diets. Breakfast cereals and plant-based dairy substitutes are two major categories where millets are being seen as feasible alternatives.

How organic farming and millets help restore soil ecosystem

With climate change wreaking havoc on agricultural land through increased temperature and water shortage, and the chemicals used in conventional farming practices only compounding the problem, sustainable organic farming and millet cultivation is the last hope to produce food without destroying the environment.

The Green Revolution of the sixties heralded a new era for agriculture in India. The need for large-scale food production was met by using high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice and implementing modern farming methods, which entailed the extensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

While the movement helped India meet its high demand for food, the practices it popularised had a severe deteriorating impact on the environment. The use of chemicals and the rapid cultivation of successive crops, without giving the soil time to regenerate its nutritional quality, resulted in the poisoning of water bodies and the widespread destruction of agricultural land. In Punjab, the ceaseless cultivation of wheat, along with extensive use of chemical fertilizers to bolster crop yield, has spelled devastation for the State’s rivers and water reservoirs, several of which are so contaminated that their water cannot be used for any purpose. The same problem extends to the once fertile soil of the State, most tracts of which are now unfit for growing any crop.

This problem has taken a turn for the worse in recent years, with the effects of climate change being felt across the country. The sudden temperature increases and corresponding water shortages have impacted agricultural communities across the length and breadth of India. Successive heat waves have severely impacted the wheat production in Madhya Pradesh, recognised as the ‘wheat bowl’ of India. Meanwhile, the recent monsoon failure in the North-Eastern states of India has had a devastating effect on the farmers of the region, who mainly rely on rain-fed agriculture to grow their crops. In a similar vein, the water shortage of the Cauvery River resulted in the failure of around 70 percent of the crop being cultivated in the Thanjavur agricultural belt in Tamil Nadu.

These adverse effects of climate change aren’t restricted only to India, with many countries in Western Europe suffering crop failures due to the unpredictable fluctuations in seasons, according to Vikram Sankaranarayanan, an economist-turned-social entrepreneur and Managing Director of agro-company SanLak Agro-Industries.

With droughts becoming more commonplace in some of India’s most prominent agricultural regions, the country’s farmers need to adopt farming practices, which have the least impact on the environment while still producing a large enough quantity of crops to sustain their livelihood and the country’s food demand. That’s where sustainable organic farming and millets cultivation come into play.

Millets to the rescue

There are several reasons why millets are the crops that need to be cultivated in earnest today. They are climate-smart and can be grown in drought-hit, arid regions more successfully than any other crop. They also have an extremely low water footprint, with a crop of millets requiring around 80 percent less water than crops like rice, wheat, or sugarcane. Another, often overlooked, positive of cultivating millets is that they are excellent for soil preservation.

“Millets, as organic matter, are slow to break down in soil just as in our digestive systems,” Lynette Abbott, an emeritus professor at University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture, tells YourStory. “Their slow composting nature helps in maintaining soil structure and retaining water, thus preserving soil health for extended durations.”

Another reason why millets are good soil preservers is their root network. “Millets, like most grasses, have a fibrous root network that helps maintain soil integrity due to its extensively branched nature,” explains Dr Abbott.

Integrating millets in existing agricultural practices

One cannot realistically expect all the farmers in the country to start cultivating only millets. Rice and wheat are an integral part of the Indian population’s staple diet, and replacing them entirely with millets is as impossible as it is foolhardy. Millets are, however, the ideal crop for cultivation during fallow periods—the time between the cultivation of one batch of crops and the sowing of the next. This is so because millets have a high tendency to form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, explains Dr Abbott. These fungi colonise the root system of the plant and provide increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities. Fungi can easily absorb phosphorous and nitrogen — two elements that are vital for a crop’s growth but are present in small quantities in soil during fallow periods.

There are, however, a few roadblocks that stand in the way of millet cultivation. For one, millets have a lower yield per hectare than rice and wheat, making them less profitable than those popular crops for farmers. Farmers in possession of fertile lands that receive steady rainfall, for instance, have no reason to start cultivating millets as that would just reduce their profits, explains Sankaranarayanan. The low floor price of millets, caused by low consumer demand, prevents farmers from taking up millet cultivation. This problem is currently being tackled by several institutions and State governments. For example, the Karnataka Department of Agriculture, led by its minister, Krishna Byre Gowda, is taking several measures to increase the awareness and demand of millets.

Sustainable organic farming

If cultivating millets is not always a practical option, is there an alternate way to prevent environmental damage occurring because of agriculture? Yes, there is: sustainable organic farming. Farming methods that do away with chemical fertilisers and pesticides while using water-conservative methods like drip-water irrigation and soil-friendly biofertilizers drastically reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment.

Realising its benefits, several States, in conjunction with research organisations, NGOs, and food companies, are taking active measures to promote organic farming practices by their farmers. For example, Institution for Cultural Research and Action (ICRA) works with around 5,000 farmers in four ‘eco-regions’ of Karnataka. By encouraging rain-fed organic farming, the organisation has helped generate a two-to-four-fold increase in total farm productivity in these regions. They also promote mixed cropping (where multiple crops are grown on one agricultural plot at the same time) to lower the investment costs and increase the crops’ resilience against severe water stress.

Setting up and maintaining a sustainable farm does require more time and effort as compared to a conventional one. But the clear environmental benefits it entails, not to mention the healthiness of crops grown on these farms, makes sustainable farming a practice worth following, says a spokesperson for Vishaal Farm Fresh, a food producer and seller that grows all its produce on sustainable farms.

This positive mind-set has led to an explosive growth of organic farming in India, with the total area under organic cultivation recording a 90,000 hectare increase in the last decade alone, according to DV Sadananda Gowda, Minister of Statistics & Programme Implementation, Government of India.

“Organic farming and millet cultivation were common practices in India for millennia. But we’ve forgotten about them in the past few decades,” says Byre Gowda. “It’s time to reintroduce them to society.”

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