Millets, Monsoon & Market

Considering the importance of millets, both for improving nutrition security and climate resilience, the Government of India has declared 2018 as a National Millet Year.

Enlarging the food basket

A recent media report indicates that the acreage under Ragi and millets is likely to go up substantially in Karnataka as well as in several other states. Remunerative pricing and effective procurement are the keys to revive interest in such crops. The Karnataka government has procured over 1 lakh tonnes of Ragi at Rs 2000 per quintal. Farmers will produce more if procurement and consumption go up. From 1992 onwards, MSSRF has been working in Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu as well as in Koraput in Odisha trying to promote the conservation of a wide range of minor millets through opportunities for commercialisation. The Food Security Act 2013 also includes millets like ragi, jowar, bajra etc in the food basket under the PDS.

It is now known that such millets are not only nutritious but are also climate smart in the sense that they are more resilient to rainfall distribution. In order to ensure that these nutritious and climate resilient crops are again cultivated on a large scale in dry farming areas we should ensure that they have a market. Fortunately, many food processing companies are coming up based on ragi, bajra, jowar and a range of minor millets. We need to ensure that both under the Food Security Act and school meal programme, there is sufficient off take of nutritious millets. Also, government should change the practice of referring to such crops as “coarse grains”. They should be referred to as “climate smart nutri-millets”. Also we should propose to the United Nations to declare one year of this decade as International Year of Underutilised and Biofortified Crops. Next year is the International Year of Pulses, and pulses are also climate smart and protein rich. Through suitable policy support for the cultivation and consumption of such crops, it should be possible to erase the image of our country as one with the largest number of malnourished children and women.

Another urgent requirement is greater investment in research on these “orphan crops”, so that the yield potential is substantially enhanced. Both higher yield and assured marketing will increase the attractiveness of these crops to small farmers.

Saving culinary and curative agro-biodiversity

On May day, it will be appropriate to consider the food security of labour and other sections of the population. In the past, the food habits of labour included a wide range of millets. Gradually, from a large variety of crops, the food basket shrunk to very few ones. It is therefore a welcome initiative on behalf of the Govt. of India to launch a Nutritional Mission to promote millets.

When MSSRF was established in 1989, one of the first tasks undertaken was to enlarge the food basket of the tribal families of Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. Gradually, the number of crops used for human food and health started shrinking because of a lack of market for them. Therefore the MSSRF strategy was to promote conservation through commercialisation. Fortunately, this strategy has helped to stop the conversion of millet fields to tapioca, pineapple and other crops in commercial demand. Saving culinary agro-biodiversity involved finding a market for them. This is what has been achieved by MSSRF scientists in Kolli Hills. We need similar missions in many other crops so that once again our food basket becomes enriched with a wide range of vanishing crops. A very good account of how the food security basket can shrink over time is given in the book “Lost Crops of the Incas” published by the US National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council. 1989. Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academy Press, Washington. D.C.).  Just as the crops of Incas are now being revived the millet crops of Kolli Hills are also in demand now. It will be useful if public policy involves the addition of nutri-millets in the noon-meal programmes in schools. Thus we can gain the nutrition benefits of millets as well as their tolerance to climate change.

National nutrition mission

On the occasion of the International Women’s Day on March 8, prime minister launched a National Nutrition Mission covering all the 640 districts of the country. To achieve the goals of the National Nutrition Mission, the following five areas need concurrent attention.

Overcoming calorie deficiency through the effective use of the provisions of the National Food Security Act 2013

Overcoming protein hunger through the increased production and consumption of pulses and milk and poultry products.

Overcoming hidden hunger caused by micro nutrient deficiency through the establishment of genetic gardens of biofortified plants and promoting a Farming System for Nutrition progamme. Ensuring the availability of clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care. Developing a cadre of Community Hunger Fighters who are well versed with the art and science of malnutrition eradication.

If all the five areas are attended to concurrently, we can achieve the goal of the National Nutrition Mission.

The cultivation of millets by farmers is very much influenced by monsoon behaviour and by the market opportunities. As regards the management of monsoon behaviour we need to develop the following three codes – good weather code, drought code and flood code.

As regards the market management the government should ensure the following:

An attractive Minimum Support Price (MSP)

Public procurement at the announced MSP

Public distribution through programmes connected with food and nutrition security

If above steps are taken, 2018 will prove to be a turning point in the history of millet cultivation and consumption in our country.
(The writer is an agricultural scientist who led India’s Green Revolution)


M S Swaminathan