Millet farming systems

The paradigmatic shift from agriculture to agribusiness model, based on high input intensive farming eroded local food systems. These systems got stifled further by globalisation influencing ‘exotic’ food choices and local public distribution systems overwhelmingly limiting to certain cereals like rice and wheat. Gradually, plant and crop diversity so specific to local ecosystems got ignored and gradually disappeared.  As an alternative to the mainstream developments, there have been agroecological movements pursued by several civil society organisations like AME Foundation, since late 1980’s, have been promoting sustainable alternatives such as Low External Input  Sustainable Agriculture, by training farmers and civil society organisations, helping farmers on field application and sharing knowledge in public domain. Organisations like Deccan Development Society for more than three decades have created and popularised alternative millet based food and distribution systems.

In recent times, two phenomena, have caught attention more than ever before – climate change and health vulnerabilities. With increased climate aberrations and with renewed and growing interest in healthy and nutritious food choices, revival of millet based food systems is now recognised as a near perfect answer. Millets are well known for being highly resilient to climate aberrations, requiring very low external inputs. They have fortunately remained as most desired food choices in some cultures/geographic areas as well as countries, thus, serving as living examples.

Though an obvious choice, reviving and mainstreaming require strategies that have to be collaborative, inclusive and multipronged. Firstly, the existing habits have to be tackled and overcome. Secondly, it has to be rooted in community ownership at all stages and all levels. Millet food systems where existing have to be reinforced. Those apparently invisible and eroded have to be   ‘rediscovered’.  Farming communities need to be enthused as they are not only cultivators but also consumers. They infact constitute the rural majority. Millets diverse advantages has to be popularised as well as demonstrated. All aspects of value chain have to be systematically pursued – production, processing, consumption and marketing. Need based training events have to be organised.

Sometimes these experiences could be region specific, as can been seen in North East India (p.29) while some of them driven through a mission mode, like Odisha Millet Mission. Invariably, wherever they are successful, the high commitment of local communities and civil societies closely working with them has been the critical factor. Motivated communities revive their traditional knowledge, bring back forgotten nutritious millet species, practice resource conserving and improved production practices. Their involvement and wisdom in identifying and assessing suitable varieties for their contexts through participatory varietal trials is critical and should be respected. (Susantha Sekhar Chowdhary, et.al., p.11).

Invariably, it is women, as custodians of family food and nutritional diversity and security, who play the lead role especially in reviving millet based nutritious food systems. Thus, it was natural that most of the initiatives have been led by women playing critical roles in terms of conservation, cultivation as well as popularising cuisine besides leading value chains.

Capacity building is a key component of reviving indigenous, mixed and biodiverse farming systems with focus on women.  It has to be gradual, through with partial substitution of their preferred crop choices without loss of income. (Ravi Shankar Behera, p.22). This would require promoting alternative production practices like System of Millet intensification and better agronomic practices for improved yields and incomes. (Sivaram and Behera, p.6). However, training women on simple and complex processing of diverse millets and enthusing community youth to take lead is not easy. Future lies in enthusing and building capacities of rural young men to handle different processes on their own. (Dwiji Guru, p.33).

One of the prerequisites for sustainable cultivation is good quality seed of local and diverse millet varieties. It has to be available in adequate quantities and easily accessible to those interested when required. Addressing the issue of seed scarcity, based on participatory varietal trials, researchers play a substantive role in systematic assessment of those to be multiplied. Communities multiplied these seeds and subsequently, community managed seed banks provide easy access to all those interested in taking up cultivation. (Susantha Sekhar Choudhury, et.al., p.11).

While improved consumption by communities themselves coupled with raised awareness of urban populace about nutritious millet dishes is creating new demand, communities can manage cultivation, consumption, aggregation, processing, value addition and marketing, locally. Three inspiring cases illustrate this. (Dwiji Guru, p.33)

Very often the limiting factor is economies of scale for mainstreaming an alternative movement. Owing to their own legitimate priorities, agencies/institutions in the region pursue different development trajectories. A common vision has to be pursued by all, while respecting and recognising each other’s strengths, be it, CSOs, CBOs, FPOs, Research institutions, Government agencies and others active in the area. Such programme must integrate incentives too. It is interesting to know that institutional collaborative efforts can create synergies and good results, as illustrated in Odisha Millet Mission initiatives. (p.6 and p.11). Similarly, farmers efforts at identifying and conserving outstanding local varieties providing a bright future for sustainable millet promotion  was recognised at the national level by the facilitative and positive role played by KVK, Tikamgarh, M.P (Prajapati et.al., p.17).


International Year of Millets-2023

The United Nations General Assembly at its 75th session in March 2021 declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYM 2023). UN dedicates 2023 to greater efforts in producing millets given their nutritional properties and resilience in adapting to climate change. Being grown in more than 130 countries at present, millet is considered traditional food for more than half a billion people across Asia and Africa.

Recognising the enormous potential of millets, which also aligns with several UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Government of India (GoI) has prioritized millets. A sub-mission on National Food Security Mission – Nutri Cereals was implemented considering the high-nutritive value, potential for economic empowerment of small and marginal farmers and contribution in maintaining the earth’s biodiversity; in April 2018, millets were rebranded as “Nutri Cereals”, and the year 2018 was declared as the National Year of Millets, aiming at larger promotion and demand generation. The United Nations declared the year 2023 as the International Year of the Millet, following a proposal by India, which wants to position itself as a global hub for millet.

International Year of millets provides a unique opportunity to, raise awareness and direct policy attention to the nutritional and health benefits of millet consumption. Greater millet production can support the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and can provide decent jobs for women and youth. The revenue created can boost economic growth. With the possibility of a health cereal alternative with millets, the risks associated with production shocks can be mitigated. IYM 2023 hopes to galvanise interest in millets among various stakeholders like farmers, the youth and civil society and push governments and policy makers to priorities the production and trade in these cereals.

During the International Year of Millets – 2023, the Department of Agriculture and Family Welfare (DA&FW) aims to promote cultivation and consumption of Millets at a larger scale and bring it to the entire globe. Towards this endeavour, through a collaborative approach, the GoI urges everyone including the Indian embassies, International Organizations, Academia, Hotels, Media, Indian Diaspora, Start-up communities, Civil Society, and all others in the Millets value-chain to come forward and join hands to revive the forgotten glory of ‘Miracle Millets’ through the grand celebration of International Year of Millets – 2023.


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