Millets (Alternative Crops) in India, Benefits & Challenges

  • APEDA has prepared a strategy to promote millet exports. It comes in the backdrop of 2023 being declared the International Year of Millets by the UN General Assembly.
  • Under the APEDA strategy, Indian missions abroad will brand and publicise Indian millets. e-Catalogues on various Indian Millets, a list of active exporters, start-ups, FPOs, etc., will be circulated. Start-ups will be mobilised for export promotion of the Ready to Eat (RTE) and Ready to Serve (RTS) categories.

Millets (Alternative Crops)

  • Millets (coarse grains) are a group of small-seeded grasses grown as cereal and fodder crops. They are raised mainly as rain-fed Kharif crops (sowed with the onset of the monsoons) in India.
  • There are 16 significant millet varieties, including Sorghum (Jowar), Pearl Millet (Bajra), Finger Millet (Ragi), Minor Millets (Kangani), Proso Millet (Cheena), Kodo Millet (Kodo), Barnyard Millet (Sawa/Sanwa/Jhangora), Little Millet (Kutki), Two Pseudo Millets (Buck Wheat/Kuttu), Amaranthus (Chaulai), Brown Top Millet, etc.
  • Millets were among the first crops to be domesticated. Evidence shows that the Indus valley people (3,000 BC) consumed millets. They are now grown in more than 130 countries.
  • Globally, sorghum (jowar) is the biggest millet crop. Its significant producers are the US, China, Australia, and India. Bajra is another major millet crop.

Major Millets of India

Jowar (Sorghum)

  • It is the main food crop grown in semi-arid areas of central and southern India. It hardly needs irrigation. South of Vindhyas, it is a rainfed crop, and its yield is low in this region.
  • Jowar is sown in both Kharif and Rabi seasons in southern states. In the northern states, it is mainly grown as a fodder crop in the Kharif season.
  • Clayey deep regur and alluvium are the best-suited soils for jowar. It can be raised on gentle slopes up to 1,200 meters in elevation. It does not grow well where the rainfall exceeds 100 cm.

Bajra (Pearl Millet)

  • Bajra is the second most important millet. Just like jowar, it is also used as food and fodder in drier parts of the country.
  • It is a rainfed Kharif crop of dry and warm north-western and western parts of the country. It is a hardy crop which resists frequent dry spells and drought in this region.
  • Bajra can be grown on poor light sandy soils, black and red soils. It requires 40-50 cm of annual rainfall. The upper limit is 100 cm. It is sown either as a pure or mixed crop with cotton, jowar and ragi.

Ragi (Finger Millet)

  • Ragi is mainly grown in drier parts of south India (drier parts of Karnataka) as a rainfed Kharif crop. It requires a warm climate and 50-100 cm rainfall.
  • It is raised on various soils (red, light black, sandy, well-drained alluvial loams). Karnataka is the largest producer. Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu are the other major producers.

Benefits of Millets

  • Millets are climate-smart crops. They are hardier & drought-resistant (can grow in semi-arid areas and poor soil conditions) because of their
    • short growing season (70-100 days, as against 120-150 days for paddy/wheat) &
    • lower water requirement (350-500 mm versus 600-1,200 mm).
  • In general, the yields of alternative grains are lower than rice, but in rainfed conditions, they are more resilient and can withstand the vagaries of climate change.
  • They need less water, pesticide and insecticide, and hence, they are environmentally friendly.

Health Benefits

  • Millets are a powerhouse of nutrition because of their high nutritional value compared to rice & wheat. Being alkaline in nature, they are easily digestible for infants.
  • They are rich in protein (muscle growth), essential fatty acids, dietary fibre (prevents constipation), B-Vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, etc.
  • They are gluten-free and have a low glycemic index.

Gluten

  • Gluten is a family of proteins (mainly glutenin & gliadin) naturally found in certain cereal grains, such as wheat, barley, etc. It provides no essential nutrients.
  • Gluten is responsible for the soft, chewy texture characteristic of many gluten-containing foods. When heated, gluten proteins can stretch & trap gas, allowing for optimal rising in bread, pasta, etc.
  • There is no association between long-term dietary gluten consumption and heart disease risk. However, it can cause serious side effects in individuals suffering from celiac disease (a long-term autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine).

Glycemic Index (GI)

  • The glycemic index (GI) is a rating system that shows how quickly each food affects a person’s blood sugar (glucose) level when eaten on its own.
  • High GI foods are broken down quickly and cause a rapid increase in blood glucose. Such foods include sugar and sugary foods, sugary soft drinks, white bread, potatoes, white rice, etc.
  • Low/medium GI foods are broken down more slowly and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar levels.
  • Medium GI Foods: whole grain foods like brown bread, brown rice, millets, oats, etc.
  • Low GI foods: fibre-rich foods such as fruit and vegetables, pulses, etc.
  • High-GI foods cause fluctuations in insulin levels and promote cravings and overeating.

Insulin

  • Insulin is a hormone created by β cells of the pancreas. It controls the amount of glucose in the blood.
  • In Type I diabetes (an auto-immune disease caused by the autoimmune response against pancreatic β (beta) cells), the pancreas no longer produces insulin.
  • In Type II diabetes (lifestyle disease), the cells become resistant to insulin and can no longer effectively absorb glucose, causing a spike in the blood glucose levels.

Why are finer grains preferred over coarse grains?

  • Wheat has gluten proteins that swell & form networks on adding water to the flour, making the dough more cohesive & elastic — kneading (working moistened flour into dough) & rolling rotis is easier. The resultant chapattis come out soft, which isn’t possible with gluten-free millets.
  • Fine grains are tastier (because of a high proportion of carbohydrates) and much easier to digest and absorb (for children and older people). Hence, they are preferred over fibre-rich millets.

For India, Food Security >>> Nutritional Security

  • Millets are mostly rain-dependent crops grown mainly during the Kharif season. Replacing rice (a Kharif crop) with millets will not be easy as agriculture is intimately linked with socio-economic factors and market forces (subsidies, MSP, free power), which affect crop choice.
  • Moreover, food habits have changed in favour of rice and replacing rice with millet is unrealistic. Also, the government’s focus is primarily on food security, which has always triumphed over nutritional security.

Millets under Public Distribution System (PDS)

  • Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, eligible households are entitled to get rice, wheat, and coarse grain at Rs 3, Rs 2, and Re 1 per kg, respectively. Though the Act does not mention millets, coarse grains are included in the definition of ‘foodgrains’ under NFSA. However, the quantity of coarse grains procured for the Central Pool and distributed under the NFSA has been negligible.

Initiatives to promote millets

  • In 2018, the Union Agriculture Ministry declared millets as Nutri-Cereals and the powerhouses of nutrition, considering their high nutritive value & also anti-diabetic properties.
  • 2018 was observed as the “National Year of Millets”. The UN General Assembly adopted an India-sponsored resolution to mark 2023 as the “International Year of Millets”.
  • Scientists from the ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) have developed a technology for extracting gluten from wheat dough & its regeneration in bajra & maize flour.

Initiatives required to promote millets

  • Better recipes need to be invented to get millets mainstream & make them part of everyday diet.
  • Multigrain breakfast mixes should be promoted as alternatives to early morning energy drinks like boost.
  • Millets should also be included in the PDS along with wheat & rice.
  • All millets should be brought under MSP (at present only jowar, bajra, and ragi receive MSP support).
  • Millets should be introduced under the PM POSHAN Scheme (Mid-Day Meal Scheme).

Millet Production, Consumption and Export

  • India is the largest producer of millets in the world (41% of global production). India’s top millet-producing states are Rajasthan, UP, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, and MP.
  • Jowar is mainly grown in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, TN, Andhra Pradesh, UP, MP, etc.
  • Bajra is mainly grown in Rajasthan, UP, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka.

States

Millet Crop

Rajasthan Bajra, Jowar
Karnataka Jowar, Ragi
Maharashtra Ragi, Jowar
Madhya Pradesh Bajra, Jowar
Uttar Pradesh Bajra

Export of Millets

  • Share of export of millets is nearly 1% of the total millet production.
  • Exports of millets from India include mainly whole grain.
  • Export of value-added products of millets from India is negligible.
  • India’s major millet exporting countries are U.A.E, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Libya, etc.

Consumption Patterns of Millets in India

  • According to the latest available NSSO household consumption expenditure survey, less than 10% of rural and urban households reported consumption of millets.
  • The consumption of millets was reported mainly from Gujarat (jowar and bajra), Karnataka (jowar and ragi), Maharashtra (jowar and bajra), Rajasthan (bajra), and Uttarakhand (ragi).
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