Rediscovering milletsThe grain can potentially improve the nutrition and health security of a large population.
The UN General Assembly has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Perhaps no other time would've been more appropriate to celebrate the benefits of millets than at present; their suitability for cultivation under harsh hydro-meteorological conditions makes them perfect for what we're likely to face under a rapidly changing climate. The more we hear about how suitable this grain is for adapting to extended droughts and degraded land—an increasing likelihood as a result of more extreme events—the more we can appreciate how sensible our forefathers were to include millet in the list of crops they took on to adapt to their environment.
A variety of millets, including Kodo (finger millet), Junelo (sorghum millet), Kaguno (foxtail millet), Chino (proso millet) are grown across different agro-climatic zones in Nepal. The dominant among them is the Kodo, the fourth major crop after paddy, wheat, and maize. Kodo is grown mostly in marginal lands or as a relay crop following maize in the hills to best utilise the left-over nutrients and the remaining rain and soil moisture of late August and September. Agriculture scientists believe millet is important for humans because it’s not only widely adapted to marginal lands with low fertility, it also has a low infestation of crop pests and diseases. The grain can be stored for years without storage pests ruining the stocks. Most importantly, it grows well where other crops generally fail.
Furthermore, millet is gluten-free, nutrient-dense containing rich micronutrients, dietary fibres, rare amino acids, vitamins, and account for higher protein, calcium, and iron. These are essential for a healthy diet; those living a more sedentary life may benefit from incorporating such a grain in their diets. In that sense, millet can potentially improve the nutrition and health security of a large population if properly integrated.
However, millet is not a cereal that is currently eaten as a regular portion of the diet. In most areas, even those who traditionally consumed millet have shifted to eating rice, wheat and maize, made possible by better access to markets with expansion of rural roads and improved financial capabilities due to remittance income. The younger generations have hardly even tasted it!
Recognising millet’s importance, efforts were made in the 1970s and following decades to collect and preserve available millet germplasms. Between 1975 and 1995, more than a thousand accessions of millet species were collected and conserved by a research programme. Unfortunately, those germplasms were destroyed when arson consumed the office building that housed the samples during the decade-long insurgency in Kavre.
Crop of the future
Agriculture scientists are worried about the prospects of food security as the climate crisis deepens. As a potential solution, ‘climate-smart agriculture’ has been promoted to help farmers adapt to these climate stresses. The merits of such concepts and the need for their promotion are beyond reproach. However, the problem with any new initiative, including those related to adaptation, is that they hardly reach the marginal farmers who cultivate degraded fringe lands, and even if they do, it’s often too late as they abandon farming or opt to join the labour market when farming fails to meet their needs. The truth is that marginal farmers seldom have the luxury of waiting until a feasible farming model is found for them to adopt.
Although considered as a crop of the future, in the context of changing climate so far, millet hasn’t received its due share of fanfare, except from those who use Kodo to produce alcohol. A significant amount of Kodo is used in making alcohol, or raksi, a traditional beverage. The business of brewing this drink, despite the permissible legal limit being negligible, has ballooned—with the expansion of roads connecting remote villages. The lack of employment in villages and the remittance-supported economy of urban centres has supported its growing production and market.
The food crisis of 2008 continues to remind us that our food security hinges upon a delicate precipice; we may face an even worse situation in the near future with soaring food prices and reduced incomes. Onion prices increased threefold when the crop was destroyed by late monsoon rain in India, forcing our neighbour to ban its export for the last two years. A bleak reminder that we may not always be able to import food when the climate crisis deepens and affects food production in countries that export.
The UN declaration has come at an appropriate time as it reminds us that we already have a climate-resilient local crop to help us ensure food security—a crop whose potential our forefathers had recognised centuries ago. Emphasising and promoting the cultivation of millet going forward is all that's required now.
Coincidently, while addressing the launch of the 'Make in Nepal-Swadeshi' campaign by the Confederation of Nepalese Industries to promote domestic industrial production, Prime Minister KP Oli hinted that unless Nepali products are linked with agriculture, the campaign's intended goals would be difficult to achieve. Additionally, commercial agriculture itself will come under tremendous stress thanks to the climate crisis which may discourage investors from prioritizing agro-based industries further. Thus, millet may position itself as a profitable venture to invest in.
Integrating traditions with modern needs
In truth, no approbation would be high enough to illustrate how the millets of Nepal possess globally important, unique gene pools of nutrition, cold and drought resistance, and pest tolerance. These qualities are important for the food and nutrition security of large populations. Hence, we need to begin valuing millet’s high adaptability and suitability for marginal lands and also for harsh climatic conditions to ensure food security of those who have limited access to resources.
The traditional ways of farming, though less efficient and responsible for some very real socioeconomic and political problems over the centuries, also had their merits, especially with the understanding that our ancestors had of the land and the crops they grew. Moving away from these traditions completely has been a mistake since they were informed by our own rudimentary science derived from our archaic data. We need to refocus on integrating the traditions with our modern needs that have morphed due to the climate crisis.
The question before us, therefore, is how can we encourage farmers to grow millets even when it doesn’t fetch attractive financial returns as many other cash crops? There is a good chance that the next phase of the agriculture revolution would revolve around crops like millets; when that happens, our unique millets, with globally vital gene pools, could get the attention they have so far been denied.