Millets for food, nutrition and health security

S. Swain and N. R. Parida

The role of millets as food grain has been declining over years with increasing availability of rice, wheat and maize. Research input in the production and utilization of these grains is also very poor. Governmental policies in the state do not promote cultivation and consumption of these grains. All these have contributed to the neglect of millets under the modern agricultural production system. This neglect has also caused further marginalization of the farming regions where these crops are grown and the farmers who have been traditionally depending on these crops for their food security and income. Interestingly, it is being now realized that these crops have importance as health foods, largely due to their nutrient composition, including high dietary fiber and the unique low glycemic index of their carbohydrate. Thus, apart from their traditional role as a staple for the poor under the marginal agriculture, they are assuming potential new role as a health food for the urban high income population.

Tribal livelihood at Jeypore region in Koraput district is primarily agriculture. Other livelihood options during off-farm season are collection of forest prodcue, wage employment, petty trading and other semi skilled jobs. Nearly 90% population owns land. One third of the agriculture area is irrigated. Uplands and CPR (common pool resources) constitute around 60%. 16% of the arable land is under Jhola (terraced valley bottom with perennial water flow). Use of fertilizer is negligible. Paddy is the main crop (40% of the cultivable land) followed by pulses and oil seeds.

During 1980s, Kolab Irrigation Project was introduced in this region owing to which nearly 70% of the land got access to irrigation. People started converting their medium lands in to low lands and uplands to medium land to avail the water source. There was a paradigm shift in cropping pattern as the millet cultivated area was taken over by paddy. In the irrigated lands, farmers preferred to grow double crop of paddy. With the introduction of irrigation, they also started cultivating high yielding and short duration paddy varieties and started using chemical fertilizers. Cultivation of local landraces of paddy was given up. Thus, the area under millets got drastically reduced over the years.

During the project intervention, it was understood that millets were confined to 1-2 hectares in upland areas, where irrigation is not possible. Remaining uplands are left fallow for years. Attention is more on paddy owing to its market.

With increase in paddy cultivation, the area under millets reduced and so did the consumption. Some of the major health problems persisting in the area were – Children below the age of 5 years suffered from micronutrient malnutrition, which can be seen through their swollen belly. Women suffered from acute anemia and loss of body weight. Men were suffering from profound physical weakness, which reduced their capability to work in the field for a longer time.

Making a beginning

To improve the food, nutrition and health security of these tribal people, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation implemented a project introducing nutritious millets namely, finger millet (Eleucine coracana), little millet (Panicum sumatrense) and Italian or foxtail millet (Setaria italica) into their crop production systems. The high resilience of these millets and their superior adaptive ability to cope up with variable agro-climatic adversities, in terms of soil fertility and rainfall make them favoured choices under arid and hill agriculture. These millets largely served as food grain with their straw valued as fodder. Nutritionally, they have high micronutrient content (Table-I), particularly calcium, phosphorus and iron. Their grain protein has better sulphur-containing amino acid profile.

SHGs of men and women were organized for collective management of different aspects of millet production, processing, consumption and marketing. This was combined with several other activities like on-farm conservation of all traditional varieties, strengthening traditional seed distribution system; empowering farm women with grain processing infrastructure to eliminate their drudgery, training women on value addition and marketing; building entrepreneurship in product development and

Special Features  Medicinal & Nutritive Value
Delicious Food items from millets 
Rich in proteins, vitamins &   mineralsGrows in marginal areasHealthy supplementary foods Contains low carbohydratesContains Vitamin A, B-complex, b-carotene, Iron, Calcium, ProteinHealthy food for old, sick and diabetic patients SweetsBaked foodsDiabetic foodsSnacksWeaning foodsSupplementary food

marketing; generating awareness among public, grass root institutions and policy makers on the importance of nutritious millets to the food baskets of the poor, in enhancing their nutrition and income.

Enhancing productivity

Table-I: Comparative nutritional composition per 100 gm among  different Cereals
Nutrition Components Wheat Rice Finger Millet Little Millet Italian Millet
Carbohydrates (in gm.) 71.2 78.2 74 76 60.9
Proteins   (in gm.) 11.8 6.8 7.3 7.7 9.9
Fibers   (in gm.) 1.2 0.2 3.2 7.6 10.0
Fats   (in gm.) 1.5 0.5 1.3 2.5 4.7
Ashes   (in gm.) 1.5 0.6 2.6 1.5 3.2
Calcium   (in mg) 310 100 358 170 310
Phosphorus  (in mg) 306 160 250 220 290
Iron    (in gm.) 5.3 0.7 9.9 7.0 4.9
Energy (in K. Cal) 346 345 328 341 331

To increase the production and consumption of millets, it was important to enhance the productivity of the varieties grown in the region. High yielding traditional or improved varieties suitable to each region had to be identified and promoted. Through participatory varietal selection methods, farmers and scientists continued selection on these varieties and identified three most promising varieties in each of the three crops. Notable aspects of the participatory variety selection are active participation from women farmers and the fair consistency and precision they could achieve. Jeypore farmers placed equal importance to the local variety ‘Athangulia mandia’. In little millet, farmers chose OLM 203 and a local variety ‘Kalakosla’. In Italian millet, local variety ‘Badakangu’ was the most preferred one. Wherever the improved variety is selected over the local cultivars, the yield advantage ranged from 12% in little millet to 34% in finger millet.

Along with a suitable variety, better crop production practices were promoted to enhance productivity of these millets. In tribal areas, these crops are more often grown as crop mixtures by broadcasting method. Intercropping millets with non-millet crops were adopted. Comparative farmer participatory trials at Jeypore, with traditional broadcast sowing using seed mixtures and row planting these crops in different proportions showed yield gain (23 to 33 per cent) and increase in net economic returns (24 to 34 per cent).

Thus, approaches involved inclusion of farmer’s need-based crop choices, shift from broadcasting seed mixtures to row planting with judicious choice of row proportions and inclusion of millet intercrops along with millet displacing cash crops.

Normally, the tribal people never applied any kind of manure, not even chemical fertilizers, in uplands, where normally millets, pulses and oilseeds are grown.  Farmers applied Farm Yard Manure in adequate quantity and observed an increase in water holding capacity of soil in uplands for two successive years.

Also, many farmer participatory demonstrations were organized involving farmer selected varieties and improved methods of cultivation. These demonstrations along with field days organized during crop maturity, successfully popularized the farmer selected varieties and improved cultivation practices among farmers from neighbouring villages. The relative performance of these varieties during a drought affected season made them a very attractive option.

Grain banks

Seed shortage is very common in millet farming. For the public or private seed distribution systems, seeds of these crops are not a priority. Because most of these crops are sown and harvested in mixtures, farm saved seeds are of low genetic and physical purity. Also, food shortage and poverty are more endemic in these regions forcing farmers to consume saved seed. Therefore, village Gene-Seed-Grain banks were promoted to establish seed security to the local community and also maintain seed purity. Farmers were empowered with the knowledge and skills on seed production, maintenance of seed purity, and safe traditional seed storage systems at the community level.

Adding value  

Value addition methods including processing and product development, to address the issue of drudgery reduction, became popular. Small mills were set up at village level and mini-mills at the level of self help groups (SHGs).

Women from three SHGs from two villages of Jeypore were trained in using these mills. Members of SHG were made aware of the nutritional value of these crops. Developing and marketing value added products like flour, semolina malt and packageable snack foods helped in getting additional income. It also enhanced the demand for millets. During the second project year, the SHGs income from value addition activities increased by 44%. Farmers were linked with markets offering premium prices for value added products. These efforts have resulted in reduced drudgery, consumption of nutritious food and a spirit of entrepreneurship among women.


Awareness generation at farm family, local and national levels are an important strategy of this project. The nutritional value of these crops, the unique advantages of these crops as health foods, their primacy for the income generation and in the food basket of the rural poor in the arid and mountain regions were highlighted. Mass awareness on these crops using local radio stations, print media and conduct of training to the targets groups in project areas was taken up. Rural exhibitions, biodiversity fairs, exposure and marketing of value added millet products at rural festivals, and exposure visit to farmers are some of the approaches successfully practiced. Now, an awareness meeting is being organized at the global level, for drawing the attention of policy makers, administrators, donors and public on the relevance of these crops in regional food security and livelihoods.

Impact on health

Every household having uplands grow landraces of millets for their home consumption. There is a substantial reduction on purchase of millet grains from the local market after the implementation of the project.

The daily intake of millets by a household having 6 members has increased from 350 gms to 600 gms. The community Gene-Seed–Grain bank ensures availability of grains for consumption of each and every household in the village.

With processed foods like Laddu, Chakkili and malt, the intake of millets, especially in children has increased. There was a substantial reduction in the size of belly in case of children, which indicates that there is an increase in micronutrient level in their body.

The millet intake by adult women and men increased from 60 gm to 100 gm per day per person. Depending on the body weight, the weight of farm women increased by 2-5 kg. In case of men, they were able to work a couple of more hours more per day on the field.


The authors would like to thank the tribal farm families of southern Orissa for their contribution for saving the genetic base of  these wonderful nutritious millets.


  1. Bala Ravi, I. Hoeschle-Zeledon, M. S. Swaminathan, E. Frison 2005, Hunger and Poverty: the role of Biodiversity, MSSRF-IPGRI-GFU., Role of Nutritious millets for foods

 Annual project Report on “Enhancing the Contribution of Nutritious but Neglected Crops to Food Security and to Income of the Rural Poor-Asia Component: Nutritious Millets” –2005,  IFAD-IPGRI-MSSRF

  1. Swain, Senior Scientist and N. R. Parida Technical Assistant
  2. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Phulbad, Jeypore RS – 764 002, Koraput, Orissa

Phone& Fax: 06854-233856    E-mail:


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