Long neglected as a coarse grain, millets are nutritious and the oldest crops cultivated for food. The earliest evidence of millet dates back to 3,000 BC and the Indus Valley Civilisation. The world again realises the importance of millet grains, which have been entangled in the conflict between coarse and refined grains for a long time. However, traditional and rural societies, as well as top agricultural scientists, have known for a long time that millets are an excellent source of nutrition. Despite this, it took independent India 70 years to notify millet as a “nutri-cereal” in 2018.
Millets can help combat health challenges such as obesity, diabetes and lifestyle problems as they are gluten-free, have a low glycemic index and are high in dietary fiber and antioxidants. Various phytochemicals in millets make them rich in therapeutic properties such as anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative. Due to its low glycemic index, millets are an ideal food ingredient for diabetic patients. Scientifically underlining the nutritional value and benefits of these healthy grains can be instrumental in bringing them back to the common man’s plate, increase their acceptability among farmers, and encourage processing efforts among food processors.
Meeting Food Security
Millets or Sridhanya are nutritionally superior to wheat and rice due to their higher levels of protein, a more balanced amino acid profile, crude fiber, and minerals such as iron, zinc, and phosphorus. Millets, including Sorghum, Pearl, Finger, Foxtail, Little, Kodo, Proso, Barnard, Browntop, Teff and Fonio have been pivotal to food security, rural self-reliance and nutrition. Today the world has realised the importance of millets and its popularity is gaining momentum. 2018 was also declared the “Year of Millets” nationally. On the call of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, the United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets, so that the lost prestige of these grains could be restored and its benefits could be extended to the broader society.
Nutrients for half a cup of sorghum (jowar) contain about 330 calories, 10 grams of plant-based protein, 69 grams of carbohydrate and 0.6 grams of fiber. Sorghum is rich in phenolic compounds, many of which act as antioxidants. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation due to its antioxidant properties. Several of the phenolic compounds in sorghum have been linked to anti-cancer effects.
Modi Govt’s Initiative for Millets
Under the National Food Security Mission (NFMS), nutritious cereal component for Millets is being implemented in 212 districts of 14 States. To promote the cultivation and production of Millets in the country, the Central Government recently launched of Shree Anna Yojana. The government said that Indian Millet Research Institute at Hyderabad will be made a major millet research centre. Furthermore, apart from this, many types of assistance are given to the farmers by the states. According to the government, Rs.6.25 crore have been given to more than 66 Startups, while 25 Startups have been approved for further funding. The Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare has taken several initiatives to promote domestic and international millets. A series of pre-launch programs and initiatives were also organised recently on the MyGov platform for the International Year of Millet 2023 to create awareness and a sense of public participation about this ancient nutritious grain (millet). MyGov has become a very important and successful medium for raising awareness through contests. Notably, India has more than 500 startups working in the millet value-added chain, while Indian Institute of Millets Research has incubated 250 startups under RKVY-Raftar. India is the major production country of Millet in which Kangni, Kutki or small millet, Kodon, Gangora or Barnyard, china and Brown top are included with Jowar, Bajra, Ragi and small millets. Most of the states in India grow one or more millet crop species. During the last 5 years, India has produced more than 13.71 to 18 million tonnes of millets with the highest production in 2020-21. According to the fourth advance estimates for the year 2021-22, about 16 million tonnes millets have been produced in India, which is about 5 perc ent of the national food grain basket.
Important Millets of India
Sorghum (Jowar), Pearl Millet (Bajra), Finger Millet (Ragi/Mandua), Minor Millets i.e. Foxtail Millet (Kangani/Kakun), Proso Millet (Cheena), Kodo Millet (Kodo), Barnyard Millet (Sawa/Sanwa/ Jhangora), Little Millet (Kutki) and two Pseudo Millets (Buck-wheat (Kuttu) and Ameranthus (Chaulai).
Pearl millet, the fourth most widely cultivated food crop in India after rice, wheat, and maize, occupies an area of 6.93 million hectares with an average production of 8.61 million tons. Pearl Millet, used in various industrial products, is also rich in nutrients. Hundred grams of pearl millet grains contain 11.6 grams of protein, 67.5 grams of carbohydrate, 8 milligrams of iron and 132 micrograms of carotene, which is very important for the protection of our eyes.
In Finger Millet (Ragi) farming, an average yield of 12 to 15 quintals per hectare can be obtained in case of rainfed crop. In the case of an irrigated crop of Finger Millet, 40 to 45 quintals per hectare production can be achieved. Finger Millet contains about 5-8 per cent of protein, 1-2 per cent of etheric essence, 65-75 per cent of carbohydrate, and 15-20 per cent of fiber and 2.5-3.5 per cent of minerals. It has the highest calcium content (344 mg/100 g) of all cereals. The high amount of high protein makes finger millet important to remove malnutrition. Finger Millet is a good source of protein, especially for vegetarians because it contains methionine, which accounts for 05 per cent of the protein.
Millets have the potential to single-handedly fight issues such as climate change threat to agriculture, food security, nutrition and chemical induced farm practices
Foxtail millet (Kangani), per 100 grams. contains 351 kcal of energy, 04 grams of fat, 11.2 grams of protein, 63.2 grams of carbohydrates and 6.7 grams of fiber. Foxtail Millet is rich in Vitamin B12, which is essential for maintaining a healthy heart, smooth functioning of the nervous system, and in general is good for skin and hair growth. A diet including Foxtail Millet can improve glycemic control and reduce insulin, cholesterol and fasting glucose in patients suffering from Type-2 diabetes.
Importantly, 60.9 grams of carbohydrate, 5.2 grams of fat, 9.3 grams of iron, 220 milligrams of phosphorus, 9.3 milligrams of iron, 17 milligrams of calcium and 114 milligrams of Magnesium are found in per 100 grams of Little Millet (Kutki). Similarly, Kodo millet is also rich in nutrients and contains 8.3 per cent of protein; the primary protein is glutelin. It has more crude fiber (9 per cent) than wheat (1.2 per cent). Kodo provides 353 kcal of energy per 100 grams, 66.6 per cent of carbohydrates, 2.4 per cent of minerals, 1.4 per cent of fat and 02 per cent of ash.
Proso Millet (Chena) is high in lecithin, which supports the nervous system. It is rich in vitamins (niacin, B-complex, and folic acid), minerals (Phosphorus, Calcium, Zinc, and Iron), and amino acids (methionine and cysteine). Barnyard Millet (Sawan) contains 10.5 per cent of protein, 3.6 per cent of fat, 68.8 per cent of carbohydrate and 398 kcal/100 g of energy. Browntop Millet (Makra or Murat) is another rich source of nutrition, and has high energy content. Hundred grams of Browntop Millet contains 338 kcal of energy, 71.32 grams of carbohydrate, and 8.98 grams of protein and 1.89 grams of fat.
Millets, a group of cereals belonging to the Poaceae family, is commonly known as the grass family. These are the nutrient-rich rainfed crops, which can be easily grown using limited resources in arid and semi-arid regions under biotic and abiotic stress. These crops can be grown in areas with less rainfall, less moisture, and less fertile soil. It is also significant from a farming point of view that most of the millets grown in India get ready to harvest within a short span of 3-6 months.
The thrust given to food security through the Green Revolution in the 1960s rendered millets as ‘orphan crops’, reducing their production and consumption. Gradually these grains were almost forgotten. The share of coarse cereals in cultivation before the Green Revolution was about 40 per cent, which has come down to about 20 per cent over the years. However, millet crops are less susceptible to pest attack and can be cultivated with minimal use of fertilisers and pesticides, which make its cultivation less costly, environment-friendly and health friendly. The seeds of millets can be stored for a long time, making it beneficial in drought-prone areas. These crops adapt well in multi-cropping systems under irrigation as well as dry land farming.
These grains are an important component of the traditional diet of some 600 million people in Asia and Africa. Millets have the potential to single-handedly fight issues such as climate change threat to agriculture, food security, nutrition, chemical induced farm practices, health challenges and farmers’ self-reliance. Given its properties, Nutri-cereals are being popularised by the Government through research and development support. Start-ups and entrepreneurs are also being supported in developing recipes and value-added products.
The emphasis of the Hyderabad-based Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and scientists working with other universities and institutes is on developing high-yielding millet varieties. Eight bio-fortified varieties of Bajra (Pearl Millet) have been released for cultivation from 2018 to February 2022. It is hoped that restoring the prestige of millets will not only make farmers self-sufficient in the coming years, but its promotion will also improve challenges such as health and food security.