Millets: From the Farm to the Palm
|   Mar 02, 2017
Millets: From the Farm to the Palm

Dietary choices have an impact on the planet in a very significant way. They determine the kind of food that is produced and what happens to the food after it is produced. While the high focus on increasing food availability by mass cultivation of certain crops like rice and wheat have helped to alleviate hunger, they have also resulted in several problems including a) monoculture leading to reduced biodiversity: of the 50,000 plant varieties rice, wheat and maize account for 60% of the plant-based food supply b) increase in the carbon footprint of food due to usage of fertilizers for cultivation, processing of food and transportation c) large volumes of food wastage. In a developing country like India which has a population of 1.2 billion people, one hand the policies laid out to increase food production did help to reduce hunger but on the other hand they have reduced the nutritional diversity of food. For instance, in 2016, India produced about 103 million tonnes of rice while only 17 million tonnes of pulses. A lopsided focus on rice and wheat not only reduces the nutritional diversity but also imbalances the water consumption by agriculture and the rainfall dependency. Rice requires about 2.7 million acre-feet of water and 1250 mm of rainfall in contrast to grains that need only .8 million acre-feet and 350 mm of rainfall. Dietary patterns, in turn, are impacted by the production and availability of the foods of choice. So the cultivation is dependent on the demand and the demand drives production. Hence sustainable diet not only involves the consumption of nutritional and energy efficient foods but also the production of the same. Solutions addressing responsible and sustainable food consumption can lead to both incremental and rapid transformations as different stakeholders like farmers, end consumers, food retailers, technologists and policy makers join hands.

In the above context, millets are wonder grains and for millennia we have been consuming them.  However after the Green Revolution, rice and wheat started dominating the farmlands and millets that are far more sustainable, slowly but steadily began disappearing from our food system. Getting people to change their food habits is not easy. Changing the entire farming and food system is even bigger a challenge.

Here are some reasons why you should start including millets in your diet today:

Millets are packed with nutrients:

High Fibre – All millets have at least 5 times the amount of fibre as rice. Barnyard millet has 50 times as much.Low Glycemic Index – Millets contain complex carbohydrates that digest slowly and release sugar slowly into the bloodstream.  They are an ideal diet choice for diabetics and those at risk of metabolic disorders.High Calcium – Finger millet has thirty times more calcium than rice, while every other millet has at least twice the amount of calcium compared to rice. Iron content  –  In their iron content, foxtail and little millet are so rich that rice is nowhere in the race.

Millets are also rich in minerals and micronutrients like Beta Carotene, which rice completely lacks.

Since millets are superior to rice in all aspects of nutrition, they can be used to solve the rural as well as urban malnutrition problem that the world is facing today.Obesity, diabetes, heart diseases among the urban populations of the world can be traced back to their dietary imbalance and the presence of carbohydrates and absence of other nutritional elements in our diet.

To overcome these problems, increased use of millets in our diets can be the answer.

Are millets tasty?

Sure, millets are nutritious. But, how do they taste?

Millets certainly are tasty foods. For generations, Indians have been consuming millets as a part of their daily food. Ragi porridge, Pearl millet porridge, millet laddoos, millet upma, millet dosas are very popular dishes. Processed foods like millet cookies, cakes, nutrition bars, puffed millet snacks, millet health mixes, etc can also be found in most of the supermarkets and local stores.

Almost all foods that are cooked with rice and wheat can be prepared with millets. Each millet adds a unique flavour to the dish and consuming millets also ensures a healthy digestive system due to its high fibre content. Also, millet cookies do not stick to the mouth like other cookies, and this adds a lot of taste to it.

Millets need hardly any irrigation:

Millets are rain fed crops and hence they need no irrigation. Lets us look at the water footprint of growing 1 acre of millet and 1 acre of rice. It takes 6 million litres of water to cultivate one acre of rice. This equals the annual water consumption of 100 families. To simply put it, 1 tanker full of water goes into producing 1 kg of rice! On the other hand millets require only about 28% of the water needs of paddy, and can also withstand severe droughts. They can go without water for more than a month. That is why millets can withstand drought-like conditions in the Deccan and Rajasthan and produce food and fodder.

Millets grow on the poorest of soils

Millets are often growing on skeletal soils that are less than 15 cm deep. Millets do not demand rich soils for their survival and growth. Hence, for the vast dryland area, they are a boon. Millets can grow in poor quality soils, turning the hitherto uncultivable land into productive farms. Together with their companion crops, millets enrich and build the soil. Most millets can be grown on low fertility soils, some in acidic soils and some on saline soils, which is a testimony to their hardiness and extraordinary capacity to survive very harsh conditions.  Millets such as Pearl millet can be grown on sandy soils as is done in Rajasthan. Poor farmers especially in dryland India are owners of very poor lands and low fertility farms. The only crops that sustain agriculture and food security on these lands are millets.


Millets produce multiple security

They offer not only food but also fodder, health, nutrition, livelihood and ecological security.

The residues from Sorghum and Pearl Millet are also extensively used as domestic construction materials, livestock feed as well as for fuel. Millet farms are inherently biodiverse and hence provide security to the farmer.

Being all season crops, they can be cultivated all year round. A millet farm has several other crops such as groundnut, horse gram, and lentil planted within it. Combined with the fact that no pesticides are used, such a farm becomes a thriving ecosystem.

Multi-crop farms are a natural insurance against not only pests but unpredictable weather and market pricing as well. If one crop fails, the farmer has others to use for food and to sell. Thus, while other food crops can offer us food security, millets can offer multiple securities.

Millets do not require chemical fertilizers:

Millets do not demand synthetic fertilizers. In fact, under dryland conditions, millets grow better in the absence of chemical fertilizers. Therefore, most millet farmers grow them using farmyard manure under purely eco-friendly conditions. In recent years, farmers have also started using bio fertilisers such as vermicompost produced in their backyard and growth promoters such as panchagavya, amrit pani etc. These practices make millet production not only eco-friendly but stays under the control of farmers. Less demand for fertilizers also helps aquatic habitats and discourages polluting industries. In a time when most farmers get into severe debts for purchasing chemical fertilizers, and end their lives as a result, encouraging millets is a step towards helping them.

Resistant to pests

Some millets like the Foxtail millet are completely pest free. Other millets don’t need chemical pesticides to grow as their seed coats are strong and deter most insects. Unlike other grains, millets are resistant to most pests, which means that the farmer need not spend money buying harmful pesticides. This also ensures that the farmer’s health is not affected by spraying pesticides and most of the millet fields are healthy without the presence of chemicals. Simple traditional methods of pest control will take care of the pests. The next time you buy millets, you need not worry about the “organic” tag, because most millets are cultivated pesticide-free anyway. Most of them are not affected by storage pests either. They are nature’s boon to the agricultural community.

Millets as Climate Change Compliant Crops

 Millets are not only adaptable to wide range of geographical and ecological conditions but also resilient to agro-climatic variations.Due to all the qualities mentioned above, Millets remain our agricultural answer to the climate crisis that the world is facing. Climate Change is expected to confront us with three challenges.

 Increase in temperature upto 2-5 degree Celsius

  • Increasing water stress
  • Severe malnutrition

 And millets have the capacity to meet these challenges:

    • They can withstand higher heat regimes and temperatures upto 46 degrees Celsius.

Millets grow under non-irrigated conditions in such low rainfall regimes as between 200 mm and 500 mm. Thus, they can also face the water stress and grow.

Every one of the millets is a storehouse of dozens of nutrients in large quantities. They include major and micronutrients needed by the human body. Hence they can help people withstand malnutrition.

It is important to note that with the projected 2 degree celsius temperature rise, wheat might disappear from our midst, since it is an extremely thermal sensitive crop. Similarly, the way rice is grown under standing water makes it a dangerous crop under climate change conditions. Millets are not just food; they are an integral part of the culture of thousands of communities all over the country. It is a food that is so deeply integrated into the culture of communities.

As consumers, we are the key decision makers who not only decide what we, our family and friends eat, but also decide the future of our food system. When we opt for healthier and more sustainable foods in the market, the demand for such food increases and retailers also start procuring these foods. Trends are bound to move towards sustainability.

And always remember:

Farmers grow what we eat and retailers sell what we buy. It is never the other way round.

Kambu Kolukkattai (Pearl Millet)

Kambu kolukattai

*Grind 1 cup of kambu in a mixie, such that the particles become coarse, that is, they are of the size of


*Roast this in a kadai till a pleasant smell wafts.

* Next, in another pan, add 1 tsp of oil and sauté kadugu(mustard), ulunthu (black gram), kadala

paruppu(Bengal gram), curry leaves, green chillies, onion(optional), along with fresh grated coconut.

*To this, add the ground and roasted kambu and ¾ cup of water, and mix well, the way we do while

preparing upma (In Tamil, on can say kelari vidu) till it becomes thick and reaches a consistency where

we can hold it in our hand and mould kolukattais out of it. It is also important to ensure that the kambu

has boiled – need not be completely boiled, but at least partially boiled.

*After making the kolukattais, steam them in the idli maker for 10 minutes, till they are completely


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