By Rameesh Kailasam
Millets should ideally be called “crops from the past that are ruggedised for the future”. They are healthy, gluten-free, nutrient-dense, drought-resistant, can survive harsh climate-change effects, and serve as “food and fodder”. They grow quickly and mature faster than rice and wheat.
Before the advent of green revolution, India was still growing millets in a major way. The Green Revolution led to high productivity, increased cultivable area, high yield seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, better irrigation facilities, machinery, and double cropping. However, it also massively increased adoption of rice and wheat, thereby marginalising millets. With growing urbanisation, the emerging crowd of both rich and middle class began to look at millets as grains of rural India, thereby disconnecting their ancient ancestral relationship with these grains. With a 40% share, India is the global leader in millet production, however, heavy focus on rice and wheat led to decline of millet intake from 25% at the beginning of the revolution to less than 6%.
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Prime minister Narendra Modi, in his 97th edition of Mann Ki Baat in January, emphasised the importance of millet farming. The United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets based on a resolution initiated by India. The G20, under India’s presidency, has been serving millet delicacies its guests. While the government is pushing for millets, it is important that India’s private sector—in food processing, hospitality, and restaurant spaces—steps forward to get millets back into the Indian menu and plate.
Per World Economic Forum, higher average global temperatures and extreme weather events associated with climate change will reduce the reliability of food production. The Harvard Business Review has said that food production has to go up from 68% to 98% by 2050 to take care of the nearly 10 billion people. This is all the more reason to grow and popularise millets.
Millet consumption will increase only when they become a part of monthly, weekly, or daily staples. It is important to make them affordable and accessible, and build an affinity around them. This is possible only when chefs, restaurants, and households start churning out innovative delicacies. It is heartening to see millets gradually popping up in menus of millet-focused restaurants in cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, and Visakhapatnam. Many food start-ups have also come up with various millet-based crunchy options. It is important for millets to permeate into menus of street food, local restaurants, fine dining, and five-star restaurants.
It is delightful to see large agro-based conglomerates like ITC launch their ITC Mission Millet under leadership of chairman Sanjiv Puri, wherein the enterprise has leveraged the synergy of its food and hospitality businesses. Leadership is the key here, and efforts like those of Sanjiv Puri needs to be replicated by all major corporates engaged in agro-based businesses, hospitality, and restaurants as it would be a reflection of their leadership’s keen interest in global issues such as climate besides encouraging more consumption of the humble millet, leading to its adoption and incentivising farmers to cultivate it.
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There are learnings from ITC’s Millet Mission, which focuses on 3Es—Educate, Empower, and Encourage. This involves educating consumers on the nutritional benefits of millets, empowering farmers with knowledge on millet crop farming to enhance their livelihoods, and encouraging people to try and build a taste for millet products. The company’s agri-business is focusing on millet by building integrated millet value chains through farmer producer organisations. To develop a taste for millets amongst consumers, the company has been introducing millets across its various product categories such as pasta, snacks, and even candies. ITC Hotels has taken the lead to create and serve recipes with millets, which is a great way to get these onto the plates of those looking for healthy options in their menus. Since October 2022, ITC Hotels have been showcasing millet offerings in their breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets.
The government is making all the right moves to highlight millets. Last year, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the “Millet Challenge” for startups, with a grant of `1 crore each to three winners to encourage the design and development of innovative solutions for and across the millet value chain. The government’s focus on millets was also made clear in the Union Budget 2023, wherein it was announced millets as “sri anna” and that the Millet Institution in Hyderabad would be turned into a centre of excellence. As per the Economic Survey 2023, there are over 500 startups working in the millet value chains.
Prime minister Narendra Modi has very aptly summarised why we need to shine the spotlight on millets—it is good for the consumer, the cultivator, and the planet. Millets are not mainstream yet. A combined effort of people, industry, government, and farmers will bring it back into mass consumption in India and globally.
The writer is CEO, IndiaTech.org