Under utilised crops and their role in subsistence agriculture

Vanaja Ramprasad and Nada Gowda

The advent of green revolution also had its negative effects in the form of genetic erosion of a wide variety of food crops. These crops, also known as coarse cereals or small millets, were largely grown by the poor in marginal environments with low rainfall and periodic droughts. As millets are photo insensitive they have shorter growing season and low moisture demand. They fit in well with the mixed cropping system. They have proved to be nutritious food for people and also valuable fodder for the animals. The millets, which can be stored under ordinary conditions, have served as emergency food during food shortages.

With the disappearance of these crops from the small-scale farms there has been a drastic reduction in the cultivation and production of these grains. According to FAO statistics, 1990, the area under small millets is 54 m.ha. The average annual global production has reduced from 34.3 million tonnes in 1980 to 30.5 million tones during 1990. In India, small millets occupy 4.5 % of the total cultivated area, producing about 5 million tons of grain. Important millets grown in India are finger millet, fox tail millet, barnyard millet, proso millet, kodo millet and the small millet.

Even at the turn of the nineteenth century, Ragi (finger millet) was the staple grain for many regions across Karnataka. Ragi is one of the hardiest crops, suited for dry farming. It can grow under conditions of low rainfall, withstand severe droughts and revive again with a good shower and with a remarkable vigour. The crop is also free of pests and diseases compared to other grains. Ragi was always grown as a mixed crop along with dolichos, cowpea and redgram. Diversity in ragi was amazing. Three popular varieties that were cultivated were the kari or black variety , kempu or red variety  and the hullupore. Ragi varieties are classified based on maturity, habit of growth (tall or dwarf varieties) season of cultivation , size, shape and colour of spikes (curved, straight or branched out like a Cox comb) size and colour of grain, yield potential, quality of grain and so on. Some of the varieties  recorded were Hullubili , gudabili, karigidda, jenumudde, madayanagiri, hasurukambi, Doddaragi , biliragi, balepatte, majjige rudrajade jade shankara etc.

The other millets that  are known to be more underutilised are Saame (little millet), Navane (Fox tail millet), Oodalu (Barnyard millet), Haarakka (Kodomillet ), Baragu (common millet or proso millet). One common feature of all these millets is that they can be grown with very little external inputs in the form of manure and they can be grown under very marginal conditions.

These millets are by and large grown by the very poor and generally are short duration of three months. The millets have several advantages over other grains. The storage tissue in the seed endosperm forms the bulk of the seed and the starch in it provides the food. The outer layer of cells of the endosperm, the aleurone layer is where much of the protein is present. The embryo, which occupies a small volume of the seed, is rich in fats, proteins and minerals. All millets are rich in iron and of all the cereals, finger millet is the richest in calcium and has been used as a weaning food in India. Culturally each of the millets has its own place in foods that are prepared for the festivals round the year. Another common feature of these millets is they are small sized grains and are difficult to process. The grain is processed by hand operated stone mills that are traditionally found in the rural homes. The grain is ground as flour or often cooked as rice.

Disappearance of these millets has led to food insecurity forcing many small and marginal farmers to migrate to far off places in search of livelihoods. Green  Foundation  a community based  organisation   has in the last decade played a significant role in   reviving the  threatened crops  that have had a high value in terms of food during drought situations (See box). The communities with which Green Foundation has interacted in terms of on farm conservation have had a positive experience in reviving these crops.

Even though traditional crop varieties provide ecological insurance and food security to community, their conservation and propagation has been neglected by the formal agricultural research and extension. Facilities for processing the millets is a necessary incentive for the farming community to continue to cultivate these millets. The realization of the non-sustainability of chemical farming and monoculture, has led farmers back to traditional crops and indigenous agricultural practices.

Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad and Dr. Nada Gowda, Green Foundation, Bangalore


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