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Millets Need a Comeback for a More Sustainable Indian Diet

| Tuesday February 7th, 2012 | 0 Comments

Dietary choices do have planetary impact and this is not something that can be associated only with eating meat. The system of monoculture in agriculture is also cause for concern. In the US it is corn, soybean and to an extent wheat; in India it is wheat and rice.

According to Dr. Vandana Shiva, humans evolved by eating about 8,500 species of plants and today we eat about 300. Among these, various kinds of grains formed a large part of our diet. In India, millets have formed the core of the everyday diet for millenia. However after the Green Revolution, subsidies for wheat and rice, and the food distribution system millets are slowly dying out. 

The Green Revolution did serve its purpose – it ensured self-sufficiency in food, reduced hunger, and introduced hybrids into Indian agriculture but as a bargain Indian diet lost its nutritional diversity.  India is still the largest producer of millets – there are about eight different kinds of millet varieties that are still grown and still consumed but not to the extent that they were previously. These include Kodo Millet, Foxtail Millet, Little Millet, Proso Millet, Barnyard Millet, Sorghum, Pearl Millet, and Finger Millet. Of these the last three are more widely consumed.

Millets are a storehouse of nutrients. They have much higher contents of calcium, iron, phosphorus etc than rice or wheat. They are also higher in fibre, lower in fat and gluten-free. They make an ideal source of nutrition for diabetics due to their low glycemic index. With the advent of sedentary lifestyles with diets rich in simple carbohydrates like rice and a genetic predisposition, India has become the diabetic capital of the world with one in four Indians having diabetes.

The cultivation of millets has less impact on the environment as well. They are better suited for India’s harsher climate and they need less water and no chemical fertilizers making them ideal for organic cultivation. In a warming world, where wheat and rice cultivation are pesticide and water intensive, millets are the ideal alternative.
Dinesh Kumar’s blog is one of the leading places to start gathering information on millets, including recipes. He works extensively with millet farmers in Andra Pradesh and says that:

You need 5,000 litres of water for 1 kilo of paddy (rice). Millets require less than one fifth of that. They are the best option since they have minimal requirements, need no pesticides and can grow in multiple soil conditions. With their extensive root systems they improve soil fertility and thrive in stressful conditions

According to esvasa.com – India’s leading organic food website: “Even a 5 acre patch of land planted with traditional millets could provide the farmer nutritious grain and his animals fodder for a year.”
The Millet Network of India (MINI) works with civil society groups to revive sustainable agriculture through cultivation of millets.  However the recently proposed National Food Security Bill does not take into account the production of millets for a variable diet. Many people have even forgotten how to cook with millets and this needs to be changed. Although awareness is now spreading, unless government policy changes the millets in India will die away and get totally replaced by monoculture which will reflect not only on food security but also health.

Image Credit: Top RightProso MilletMiddlePearl Millet. Bottom RightFinger Millet. All sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


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