Resurrection of the Humble Millets: Cui Bono?Apr 28, 2023 | Shalini Rai
In recent times, the conversation around millets has gone from them being ‘coarse’ and ‘rustic’ to ‘chic’ and nutritious. Nutritionists are heartily promoting its consumption and the government is advocating its cultivation and production.
Half a century ago, millets were the staple food and were even consumed by our soldiers in the Army and paramilitary forces. But it soon lost out to the more ‘refined’ wheat and rice. Now, after being singed by the purported benefits of the Green Revolution and coming out the wiser, we are all again being told to switch to millets.
But first, what are millets?
According to the website ‘millet-advisor’, “They are a group of small-seeded annual grasses that are grown as grain crops primarily on marginal land in dry areas and belong to the Poaceae family. Millets are the ancient food grains first domesticated for food and grown in 131 countries. Millets are the traditional food for 59 crore people in Asia and Africa.”
Millets are well adapted to a variety of ecological conditions that typically demand less water, require less water and grow well even in infertile soil.
Nine types of millets are grown in India; among them are Sorghum (jowar), Pearl Millet (bajra) and Finger Millet (ragi) that cover 95% of the total millet growing area in India and the rest 5% are Little Millet (kutki), Foxtail Millet (kakun), Barnyard Millet (sawa), Proso Millet (cheena), Kodo Millet, and Browntop Millet.
They acquire their nutritional benefits from being rich sources of nutrition. Pearl Millet (bajra) has the highest iron content at 4-8 mg per 100 gm of grain and has the ability to tackle anaemia. It is rich in zinc and folic acid and is recommended for pregnant women. It contains twice more protein than dairy milk.
Millets are also beneficial in helping manage lifestyle diseases like diabetes. Their low glycemic index makes them the preferred food of people struggling to maintain their blood sugar levels. Finger millet (ragi) has about 364 mg calcium per 100 gm of grain — the highest among grains. It also has three times more calcium than milk and keeps the bones and teeth strong. There are immense nutritional benefits of consuming millets, from them being helpful in digestion to preventing constipation to high fibre content to being completely gluten-free and rich in antioxidants; they also reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and help in weight loss.
Now comes the main question — cui bono (who gains/benefits)? It is pertinent to mention here that we are all aware of the nutritional benefits of these ‘shree anna’ (blessed grains, as they have been christened by the current political dispensation) and that consuming them will help us keep healthy and live more productive lives.
Getting into the ‘economics’ of it, the one sector set to gain massively is the indigenous producers, among them both industrial scale companies and smaller entities.
According to the Economic Times, “The global millets market is projected to register a CAGR of 4.5 per cent between 2021-2026, according to a government statement. Since the government has decided to promote millets in a big way and consumers are getting aware too, businesses are warming up to the opportunity. Millets can help the FMCG industry during disruptions in global food grain supply chains, as it happened due to the Ukraine war, or adverse climate such as erratic monsoon rains bringing down the wheat and rice output.”
If you wonder why the government is so actively promoting these ancient grains now and enumerating their various benefits, it would help to look at the major players in the game.
Here’s a quote from the same Economic Times article quoted above that should be self-explanatory: