Millets: The Nutritional Powerhouses Making a Comeback in 2023
Blog by Director General of ICRISAT, Dr Jacqueline Hughes
Published on Nutrition Connect
Dubbed as ‘nutri-cereals’ by nutritionists, ‘future crops’ by environmentalists, and hailed as ‘miracle crops’ by dryland farmers, millets have been making a comeback on both plates and farms in recent years. With the UN designating 2023 as the International Year of Millets, there is a significant focus on these nutrient-rich crops and the spotlight is firmly on these tiny grains packed with immense health benefits.
At the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), we have conducted impactful research on millets for the past 50 years, contributing to increased food and nutrition security in some of the world's harshest regions. Our Smart Food campaign promotes millets as a healthy and sustainable choice, as they are "Good for you, the farmer, and the planet."
As we approach Earth Day, it's crucial to recognize the different ways we can contribute to sustainability and a healthier planet. Incorporating millet into our diets is often overlooked, but it's a simple solution with a significant impact. The act of consuming millet creates consumer demand that translates into a reliable market for farmers, resulting in increased cultivation of carbon-efficient millet crops.
Why eat millets in the first place?
They are ‘nutri-cereals’. Integrating millets into our diets can offer an array of nutritional benefits that range from addressing under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiency to controlling over-nutrition. Millets surpass other cereals in several ways, as they have elevated levels of iron and zinc, a low glycaemic index (beneficial for diabetics), good levels of protein and fibre, and are gluten-free.
Biofortified sorghum and pearl millet, which have been developed by ICRISAT in partnership with HarvestPlus, are crucial innovations for populations that consume millet. These varieties of millet are high in iron and zinc, making them essential for combating anaemia in pregnant and lactating women as well as young children.
Dietary diversity: Millets have been a staple food in many African and Asian countries for centuries, contributing to a third of the food basket. However, in recent times, the consumption and cultivation of millets have significantly declined due to reasons such as unavailability, convenience, taste, and social perception. Unfortunately, millets have been labelled as "poor people's food," which has further contributed to the decrease in demand for this nutritious grain.
This is unfortunate as millets contribute to a diverse diet which is vital to ensure consumption of a range of essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Millets can also help in improving the diversity of gut bacteria, which have a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome, in turn, is linked to improved digestion, better immune function, and reduced inflammation.
At ICRISAT, our research capabilities include the ability to unravel the genetic code of millets to develop high-yielding and nutritionally superior varieties that meet the requirements of target populations. We breed varieties to thrive in specific agro-climatic conditions, ensuring that millet crops can thrive even in the harshest of environments.
Why millets are environment-friendly
Millets are highly adaptable to drought and heat, making them ideal for cultivation in semi-arid and arid regions with low rainfall. Compared to many other cereals, they require minimal water and have a shorter growing season. This makes them a suitable crop for areas where water is scarce or unreliable, ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to the drylands of Asia and beyond. The ability of millets to thrive in such environments is a significant advantage for farmers and populations in these regions, as it can help promote food security and reduce the vulnerability of dryland farms to the impacts of climate change.
Millets are also considered to generally be a low-input crop, meaning that they require minimal amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. This reduces the environmental impact of farming practices and helps to preserve soil health and fertility.
Moreover, millets have deep roots that can penetrate hard soil and help to prevent soil erosion. This makes them an excellent crop for conservation agriculture and sustainable farming practices. Millets have a diverse range of uses beyond their nutritional benefits. For example, millets can be used as nutritious fodder for cattle. Additionally, high-biomass sorghum and pearl millet have the potential to serve as biofuel feedstocks. This versatility of millets makes them an essential crop in sustainable agriculture and provides additional income streams for farmers. It also underscores the need to explore the full potential of millets beyond their conventional uses.
How ICRISAT facilitates investment in millets
At ICRISAT, our research efforts are focused on dryland legumes and cereals, including a wide range of millets with significant biodiversity. This includes sorghum or great millet, pearl millet, finger millet, and five small millets - kodo millet, barnyard millet, foxtail millet, little millet, and proso millet. To preserve this diversity, the ICRISAT Genebank stores germplasm of these millets, which is also safeguarded for future use in Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Our research involves breeding improved varieties of climate-smart millets suitable for various market segments that fit into different cropping systems to enhance yields in farmers' fields. Important traits include high-yield, drought tolerance, and pest and disease resistance amongst others. New varieties are designed through a stakeholder consultation process, and product profiles are developed to identify quantifiable metrics. This collaborative approach to product development ensures that the needs of farmers and the market are considered throughout the research process.
ICRISAT collaborates with partners in conducting farmers' participatory trials and training on good agricultural practices to maximize benefits from the new millet varieties that are introduced. Capacity building programs are conducted for farmers and extension workers on precision fertilization, pest control, and especially soil and water conservation, which is crucial to the drylands.
Encouraging investment in millet production
ICRISAT is taking a proactive role in promoting the production of millets by facilitating investments in this sector. One of the ways we are doing this is through the Hybrid Parents Research Consortium (HPRC), which provides private seed companies access to our extensive germplasm collections that contain diverse plant genetic resources from around the world, particularly those of pearl millet and sorghum.
Through this collaboration, these companies can develop new hybrid crops that offer better performance and higher yields, while also promoting food biodiversity. This not only benefits the private sector by providing them with valuable resources to improve their products, but it also benefits farmers who thus have access to seed of these high-yielding, genetically diverse crops. By promoting the use of millets, we are contributing to the development of a more sustainable and resilient agriculture system.
ICRISAT's Hybrid Parents Research Consortium (HPRC) has had a significant impact on the production of millets in India. To measure the on-farm impact of pearl millet HPRC hybrids developed during 2000-2010, ICRISAT commissioned a third-party evaluation. HPRC hybrids were found to have outperformed other varieties and hybrids by 20%. This success and impact of HPRC in India led to the establishment of a similar consortium in Africa, showing the potential for widespread adoption of these improved crop varieties.
Facilitating investments for the consumption of millets
ICRISAT's Agri-Business Incubator (ABI) and Agribusiness and Innovation Platform (AIP) are successful public-private partnership initiatives designed to support small and medium-sized agribusinesses in developing countries. This program offers a comprehensive range of resources, including training, mentoring, and access to financing, as well as to ICRISAT's cutting-edge research and technology. By supporting these businesses, the programs help create sustainable livelihoods for farmers and entrepreneurs while driving economic growth in rural communities.
For example, young entrepreneurs from Africa who interned at AIP-ICRISAT set up the ‘Gog’ Lilly’ brand of peanut-based products. In India, 74 tribal women farmers in Telangana were trained as nutrition entrepreneurs. The women produce ready-to-cook/eat millet and legume products that are supplied to childcare centres.
As we celebrate the International Year of Millets this year, it is time to discover the numerous benefits of millets. While it may not be your go-to food ingredient, we encourage you to learn more about this remarkable crop that offers immense health benefits, and nutritional value, and serves as a lifeline to many in the drylands. The millets can be prepared in traditional ways from the drylands as well as in delicious and nutritious exotic dishes. You never know, you may have just discovered a new food passion that not only benefits you but also supports humanity!
Dr Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes
Director General, ICRISAT
About the author:
Dr Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes is a noted plant health expert. Before her appointment as Director General at ICRISAT, Dr Hughes was Deputy Director General- Research at IRRI in the Philippines, and before that, at the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan. After working with the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, her long association with the CGIAR began when she moved to Ibadan, Nigeria, in the 90s to join IITA as a virologist. With vast experience in leading multidisciplinary teams in Asia and Africa, she is a recognized visionary leader in international agriculture research and management.