Mighty millets: Underrated powerhouse of nutrients

Millets are slowly but steadily finding their place in the sun. One of the oldest cultivated grains in the world but largely confined to the traditional consumers in the rural and tribal belts of the country, the ‘superfood’ is increasingly seeing a healthy growth in terms of production as well as consumption. As per the Union ministry of food processing industries, the production of millets increased from 14.52 million tonne in 2015-16 to 17.96 million tonne in 2020-21. The production of bajra (pearl millet) also increased from 8.07 million tonne to 10.86 million tonne during the same period.

Announcing the same last month, Prahlad Singh Patel, minister of state for food processing industries, also said a production linked scheme (PLI) will be in place to promote and strengthen the value chain for millets and millet-based products including the ready-to-eat category. While addressing a national conference on ‘Millets: The Future Super Food for India’ organised by ASSOCHAM, Patel said: “So, the quality that sets millets apart from other grains is their short growing season, and millets can develop from seeds to ready-to-harvest crops in just about 65 days. This characteristic of the millets is of vital importance in thickly populated regions of the world. If stored properly, millets can keep well for two years or beyond.”

But despite its humble background and numerous qualities, the efforts to mainstream millets to improve India’s nutrition outcome had not been too promising so far in the food and agriculture sector—both in production and consumption. Millets have not found the ‘recognition’ among the urban consumers compared to the new-found status of other ‘superfoods’ such as amaranth or quinoa.

All that is about to change, though. Efforts are now being made by the government as well as private enterprises to enlarge the food basket and include millets in consumer-friendly ready-to-eat millet-based products. Millets have also managed to find a mention at global summits or fancy eateries promoting the forgotten crop in the healthy diet market.

According to Hyderabad-based Vilas A Tonapi, director, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – Indian Institute of Millets Research, the demand for millet has increased by 176% and exports by 20% in the last two years indicating awareness about the health benefits of the superfood. “There’s hype created around quinoa which is marketed well among niche consumers. As a matter of fact, ancient millets are nutritious with complex carbohydrates, have gluten-free nature, and its consumption can control lifestyle diseases like diabetes and hypertension. So, the quantum of millet consumption is much higher than quinoa which is consumed intermittently more as a fashion statement. India is preparing to position millets globally as a nutrition-dense grain as the world celebrates the International Year of Millets 2023,” he adds.

A ‘forgotten’ food
A winter customary meal is incomplete without bajre ki roti (black pearl millet flatbread) in north India, especially in states like Rajasthan and Gujarat, where one can relish the home-grown staple with dollops of ghee, chutney, pickle and gur (jaggery).

The history of millets dates back to more than 5,000 years where the ancient grain was produced and consumed by farmers living in nomadic communities. From its cultivation in the Korean peninsula dating to the Middle Jeulmun Pottery Period (around 3,500–2,000 BC), millet consumption in India is clearly mentioned in the oldest Yajurveda texts.

An alternate grain, millets are found in several varieties—pearl millet (bajra), sorghum millet (jowar), buckwheat (kuttu), amaranth (rajgira), finger millet (nachni /ragi), foxtail millet (kangni), little millet (samai), kodo millet (kodon), barnyard millet (sanwa) and proso millet (chena).

However, in the last few decades, millets have lost ground in production and consumption, especially with the Green Revolution in the 1960s that gave preference to high yielding rice and wheat farming. Additionally, urbanisation and changing food habits brought an aspirational diet based on cereals and refined sugar.

Even though millets can grow in drought-prone regions of India, especially Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka, 1 kg of millets requires over 200 litres of water as compared to 10 times for rice.

“Rice and wheat have become villains of millets which were once a staple in Asia and Africa. It gradually declined some decades back and was pushed out by larger-seeded, higher-yielding crops such as wheat, rice and corn,” says Ashok Gulati, Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

“The amount of rice produced through heavy subsidies on power for irrigation and extremely low urea prices imply exporting at least 40-50 billion cubic metres of water. Rice cultivation is fast depleting the water table and emitting methane and nitrous oxide. Farmers need to be incentivised to switch to other crops and get better returns. Can we create a carbon market and reward the farmers who are emitting less carbon dioxide into the environment?” asks Gulati. He feels a majority of states sell rice and wheat as Indian staples as they have more than 90% subsidy under the public distribution system (PDS)—the economic cost of rice is around Rs 35 per kg and wheat is about Rs 25 per kg, while rice is being sold via the PDS at Rs 3 per kg and wheat at Rs 2 per kg. “Then why should people go for coarse cereals?” he further asks.

Even though new-age agritech players are deploying the best of digital technologies such as AI, ML and IoT to optimise the storage of millets, infestation is a serious problem. “Storage is largely avoided in warehouses,” says Chattanathan Devarajan, co-founder of agritech startup Arya.ag, who has been working at the farm gate to strengthen agriculture value chains with integrated range of services. Arya.ag has over 12,000 MT of jowar and bajra managed in warehouses. “We have been experimenting with hermetic storage of millets to overcome the challenges of food damage and loss through infestation. But this should be overcome in a year’s time,” he adds.

Millets have started occupying shelf space in urban malls but the shift is too small to make a great impact. “Growing millets requires a lot of research and are still by and large grown by poverty-ridden people not having access to finance and water,” says Devarajan.

Where does India stand?
Taking one step ahead after the United Nations’ announcement to declare the year 2023 as the International Year of Millets, India is advancing to project millet as an organic superfood in the global food and agriculture market. Indian government officials and sector experts at the Dubai Expo deliberated on opportunities for industry players to enhance the country’s export potential. “We urge start-ups and farmer producer organisations (FPOs) to not only help in upscaling millets’ value chain, connecting to domestic and international markets but also create an inclusive framework where we take producing communities along,” Abhilaksh Likhi, additional secretary in the agriculture ministry, said at the event.

Additionally, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Union Budget announced 2022-23 as the year of millets. “The focus is on value addition and branding of millet products wherein support will be provided to enhance domestic consumption, to products nationally and internationally,” the minister said. Amid special schemes to promote millets or coarse cereals, the Budget has thrown light to propose it as key ingredients in the breakfast cereals, biscuits and healthy-snack segments.

With demand for nutricereals rising steadily globally, the department of commerce expects millet exports to increase exponentially in the coming years as Indian exporters find new markets abroad. Currently, India is the fifth largest exporter of millets in the world, according to 2020 data, with exports continuously increasing at around 3% CAGR in the last five years ending with 2020. In 2020-21, India exported millets worth $26.97 million against $28.5 million in 2019-20.

To balance the agriculture consumption, there is also a need to limit the procurement of rice and wheat and start giving a reasonable incentive to nutricereals. “The states can decide. For instance, pearl millet is best consumed in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana. The state governments can decide if they want to supplement the PDS through nutricereals and give incentives to farmers to produce and procure millet markets,” shares Gulati.

Besides, there is a bigger challenge to create demand for millets, especially among urban consumers. “Create a consciousness in the market and consumers. A country like the US with $70,000 per capita income can afford it whereas India at $2000 per capita income cannot afford it at this level and match the standards of the US and switch to healthy diets like organic and quinoa,” says Gulati.

Last year, Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the ICAR-Indian Institute of Millet Research (ICAR-IIMR) to increase exports through quality production and processing is anticipated to boost value addition and farmers’ income.

“Though millets witnessed a significant decrease, its productivity (yield in kg/ha) has gone up due to development and adoption of high yielding varieties and improved production technologies. Among the states, during 2017-18, maximum area under millets was in Rajasthan (4.2 m ha; 56.6% of national area under pearl millet) followed by Maharashtra (2.2 m ha, 44.4% of national area under sorghum) and Karnataka (1.79 m ha, 21.6% of national area under sorghum, 65.2% national area under finger millet). In 2014-19, millets were annually cultivated in an area of 13.7 m ha producing 15.26 m ton of grains in the country,” says Tonapi, who feels the decline has been arrested due to promotion of millet cultivation in various states. “In 2019-20, the area under millet crops was about 12.68 m ha compared to 12.25 m ha during 2018-19,” he says.

The IIMR is disseminating technologies through signing MoUs and licensing to about 75 startups to train various entrepreneurs belonging to 10 states for about eight to nine years continuously with the funding of the department of agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare (DAC&FW). In 2016, the IIMR launched ‘Eatrite’ in Hyderabad and Mumbai, a brand with processed and semi-processed food products exclusively made of sorghum under a price range of Rs 50-100. “It was an instant success as the brand backed it with aggressive campaigning in food bazaar and heritage retail stores,” says Tonapi.

Renewed interest
There’s renewed interest in ancient wisdom that’s driving millet consumption in India. Brands have taken a new approach to produce millets in products as the perception towards consumption is changing. More people realise that millets are super grains, good for health and the planet. Wholsum Foods, the makers of millet-based children’s food brand Slurrp Farm, reinvented millets to the centre of the plate of children and families alike. Their offerings include millet-based food across categories such as toddler cereals, dosas, cakes, pancakes, noodles and vermicelli.

“The grains are a rich source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. At the same time, they are hardy grains that require a third of the water required by rice. With health-conscious consumers and government continuing to put the spotlight on the grain, the market for millet-based products will only grow exponentially,” says Gurugram-based Meghana Narayan, co-founder of Wholsum Foods, which has achieved 10x growth between June 2020 and December 2021 and has over 15 lakh customers across 3,000 towns in India and internationally .

From differentiated product offerings like ragi bites, non-maida chocos, millet muesli, smoothies to snacking, breakfast cereals and beverages, Tata Soulfull, a millet-based cereal brand under Tata Consumer Products Ltd (TCPL), aims at reinventing millet products targeting the young and health-conscious consumers. “Millets are not only a healthier alternative to traditional grains but are planet friendly. We focus on solving problems of two core consumer groups—mom/kids and young adults,” says Prashant Parameswaran, managing director and CEO, Tata Consumer Soulfull. Additionally, millets can be consumed by all age groups as it is very light on the stomach.

Mumbai-based Dharmishtha Goenka, CEO and co-founder of Praakritik, an organic grocery brand, offers two millets—sorghum and sprouted finger millet. “We have planned to launch more millet options in our range in the coming months as more people approve of the benefits and its nutritional content, and this could lead to demand and export potential,” feels Goenka.

While the rural population in India consume millets, many urban consumers are still unaware of its nutritive quality, says Bangalore-based food therapist Nidhi Nahata. “We look for fibre-rich, probiotic, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, protein, naturally gluten-free food but we also need to look into natural products like millets which are underrated but are a powerhouse of nutrients. The insoluble fibre works like a probiotic that supports the good bacteria, which helps in the digestion of food. Millets also provide essential amino acids to build protein and act as antioxidants to protect our body from the harmful oxidative stress. In food varieties, there’s nutrient-rich bajra (pearl millet) khichdi served with red channa, vegetables, onion pickle, garlic chutney and papad,” says Nahata, who is also the founder of Justbe Resto Cafe in Bangalore.

The nutritional benefits of millets have not been advocated as much as quinoa, which is fairly limited in production with only 400 to 500 hectares in the country. The carbohydrate content in quinoa is as much as in white rice. “A plate of staple dal chawal would give you the same carbs when replaced with quinoa. Quinoa, however, gets its significance as it is predominantly grown in South America, Peru and Bolivia,” says Devarajan of Arya.ag, who finds commercialisation in the ready-to-eat market of millet has not yet exploded as the segment is still in its nascent stage.

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