Neglected millets that save the poor from starvation

Sankappa is a small farmer owning three hectares of dry land in Vittalpura village of Bellary district in Northern Karnataka, India. This village is situated in the semi-arid Deccan plateau and receives annual rainfall of 500mm in two to three months of the year, which allows one crop during July to October. Sankappa like his forefathers and other farmers of the village is growing foxtail millet. Other crops grown in the village are sorghum, pigeon pea and cotton. Rainfall had been continuously failing during the last four years in this part of the country. It was below 300mm during 2003. “All other crops failed due to extreme drought, and my family and livestock were saved from starvation by the harvest from foxtail millet”, says Sankappa. The traditional foxtail millet varieties grown and conserved by the villagers have excellent drought resistance and suits to the erratic rainfall of the region.

Minor millets are invariably grown in the semi-arid and mountainous regions of tropics and subtropics, where monsoon failure and drought are frequent and soil fertility is poor and land terrain is difficult. These regions are also hot spots of poverty and frequent starvations in populous countries. Traditional agriculture in these regions has found more dependability on minor millets because of their extreme hardiness. They survive with rainfall 300mm or even lower.  They offer a more probable harvest from shallow and less fertile soils and in steep slopes of hillocks and mountainous terrains (Fig. 1). Their yield varies widely from very low to modestly high across regions and years depending on the soil, management and weather.  Millets have retained its primacy under these farming conditions to provide livelihood and food security to the poor people living in the semi-arid and mountainous regions of Africa and South and Central Asia.


Eight minor millets crops grown in different regions of Africa, Asia and Eurasia are finger millet (Eleusine coracana) (Fig. 2), proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), little millet (Panicum sumatrense), barnyard millet (Echinochloa crusgalli and E.colona), kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum), teff (Eragrostis tef) and fonio (Digitaria iburua). Out of these, teff and fonio are native of North Africa and confined to those regions. Finger millet is also native of Ethiopia, but spread out to Asia few thousand years ago. Little millet and kodo millet were domesticated in India. India is also the home for one of the two species known under barnyard millet, E. colona, and E. crusgalli is native of Japan. E. colona is locally called as Sawa. All these crops have an old history of cultivation, going behind 3000 – 5000 years. Many indigenous communities in Asia preferred these as their grain crop for shifting cultivation.

The long history of minor millet cultivation and their spread to different regions of the world, which are notable for extremely harsh farming conditions had generated considerable genetic variability in these crops. Among these, Kodo millet is very hardy and possesses highest drought resistance with capability to offer a good yield in growing period between 80-135 days. Barnyard millet could be said as the second hardiest millet with ability to give a modest yield in 50-100 days.  Finger millet is more widely grown in Africa and Asia, differentiated in to five races and shows wide variability in appearance, adaptability, maturity period, yield and quality. Foxtail millet may be ranked fourth in yielding ability. The yield potential of little and proso millets is relatively lower and between them proso millet is hardier.

 The world’s millet production is shared by South and East Asia (about 60%), Eurasia and Central Asia (14%), Africa (16%) and rest of the world (10%). India is the leading producer contributing about 38% of the production. Finger millet constitutes about 81% of the minor millets produced in India and the rest by kodo millet, foxtail millet, little millet and sawa (Fig.3). The area and production trends during last several years indicate their continuous decline (Fig.3). Other major producers of these millets, in addition to India, are China, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, and former USSR, who together contribute 70% of the world production. In South Asia, Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar are other important minor millet producing countries. All most all the millets produced in S. Asia are used as food with very little going as feed. Millets are very rarely brewed in India, while 65 – 80% of the finger millet produced in Central and Eastern regions of Nepal is used to make traditional brew called chang. The ban Government of Nepal imposed on using grain for brewing is affecting the farmer preference for this crop.

In India, minor millets are still the staple to large section of people in the semi-arid region. It is a major staple in the State of Karnataka, where finger millet is grown widely even under irrigation with yield as high as 3 t/ha.

Minor millets-the nutritious millets

Proximate composition of millet grains compares well with other cereals in respect of major constituents. The nutritional significance of minor millets lies in their richness in micronutrients like calcium, iron, phosphorous, vitamins, and surphur containing amino acids. While their starch is comparable to other millets in gelatinisation temperature, minor millet carbohydrate has certain uniqueness, which makes it a health food. It has relatively higher proportion of non-starchy polysaccharides and dietary fiber and low glycemic index. Minor millet diet releases sugars very slowly and its fiber content is reported to exclude the incidence of duodenal ulcer.  Soluble fiber content of minor millets varies from 3.4% in foxtail and proso millets to 6.5% in barnyard, little and finger millets. For these superior properties of minor millets, they have been recently designated as ‘nutritious millets’ by Prof.M.S. Swaminathan. These unique properties of minor millets are shifting the nutritious millets from poor man’s grain to the health food of the affluent.

Threats to cultivation of minor millets

One of the threats to the cultivation of these millets, preservation of their variety diversity and the food security provided by them to the poor people is illustrated with a case study from the Kolli Hills of Tamil Nadu state of India (See Box 1)

Another major factor discouraging minor millet cultivation and consumption with improvement in living standard or urbanization is the drudgery associated with its processing. No processing technology and machinery suiting to minor millets are available in S. Asia. Hence much of the millets consumed are processed at household level by following a tedious method involving considerable drudgery (See Box 2). With the increasing availability of other grains, households who can afford these grains are avoiding the drudgery of processing millets. There are, however, communities culturally associated with minor millets, who may prefer these grains as staple irrespective of their income, provided the drudgery is obviated. Minor millets are largely consumed as traditional preparations. Increasing urbanization and decreasing time for domestic chores in rural households are discouraging traditional processing of millets. With the increasing availability of other cereals, minor millet consumption in Asia is getting restricted to the poorest of the poor in the semi-arid or mountainous regions, who cannot afford other grains and to those having traditional affinity.

Neglect of minor millets – causes and implications

Millets are farmed in subsistence level with years of experience and traditional wisdom embedded in the variety choice and farming systems. These systems are invariably structured on location specific multiple or inter-cropping systems to provide safeguard against livelihood and to take advantage from unforeseen favourable weather. These farming systems and underlying economic compulsions have discouraged extensive use of agro-chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides in minor millet farming. Farmers in each region have been innovative in developing many local cultivars, which are well adapted to their farming conditions. Unlike major millets, minor millets have hardly received any attention from national or global food policy makers in research funding and improvement of these crops. Hence minor millets continue to be grown largely by the traditional practices using traditional varieties under subsistence farming. Unlike in other cereals where genetic erosion had been happening with the spread of improved varieties, the danger to this genetic diversity of minor millets arises not from improved varieties but from the from their neglect and often replacement with commercial or non-food crops.

Global neglect to the minor millets and increasing emphasis on few elite food crop species are precariously narrowing the food security basket. The most disadvantaged by this food production policy are the poorest of the poor and those who are logistically vulnerable to poverty and famine. The shrinking number of food crops in the regional and global food basket is restricting the opportunity of farmers in difficult regions from using their land resources, environment and traditional knowledge for broadening the food basket and minimizing the chances of local food shortage.

Another serious implication of this neglect to these minor millets is the irrevocable loss of their genetic diversity and the associated traditional knowledge of the community.

MSSRF Initiatives

As a humble start to arrest this trend, a programme to strengthen the food security of small farmers and rural communities by raising production, consumption and income from three minor millets was initiated two years back by M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in collaboration with partners in India and Nepal with the kind support from International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the International Plant Generic Resource Institute (IPGRI). A strategic approach underlying this programme is farmer participatory enhancement of yield and quality through variety selection, improved and need-based farming system, optionally avoiding use of agricultural chemicals, promoting consumption at household level by removing the drudgery in grain processing, and increasing income generation through creating capability for value addition and marketing entrepreneurship. Participatory variety selection and conservation of regional genetic diversity and traditional knowledge are taken up hand in hand to enhance the local agro-biodiversity.

Grain processing machinery is introduced at group level and village level to eliminate drudgery to women from traditional method of processing (Fig 4.). Capability in value addition and marketing entrepreneurship to farm women is gained by first organizing them in to self help groups (SHGs) and training them on skills to produce de-husked finger millet flour, finger millet malt, pearling of little and foxtail millets, production of semolina from millet rice, for product packaging and in marketing.  This end-to-end approach from productivity increase through value addition to marketing is making substantial gain to farmers in terms of drudgery reduction, increased employment opportunity and enhanced income. Their income by direct marketing of value added products has increased 44 per cent over what they were earning traditionally from the sale of grain.


Widening of food basket to enhance local accessibility to food, using the productive resources of difficult regions, where production of major food crops is not possible, for ensuring the food security of vulnerable section of the people and conservation of agro-biodiversity of under-utilized crops are issues relevant to tackle hunger, poverty and malnutrition. The policies and funding support on ground at national and international levels on the under-utilized crops begs for greater awareness among policy makers and donor organizations concerned with elimination of hunger and conservation of agro-biodiversity. During later this year MSSRF is joining hands with IFAD, IPGRI and other interested agencies in organizing an international meet to generate support from food policy makers and donor agencies to promote cultivation, research, use and conservation of under-utilized crop species, valuable in food, nutritional and health security of many traditional communities.

 S.Bala Ravi, Advisor (Biodiversity)& Former Assistant Director General (IPR), ICAR, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Institutional Area, Taramani, Chennai-600 113, India;

S.Bala Ravi

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