Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Millets for Climate Change

Millets often referred as miracle crops/grains, are major food sources in arid and semi-arid regions of the world, and feature in the traditional cuisines. They are also considered as the lifeline for the dry and rainfed tracts. They are put to multiple uses as food, feed and fodder, besides being the raw material for industries. Millets are some of the oldest of cultivated crops and the staple foods for millions, particularly in undeveloped and developing nations of Africa and Asia.

Sorghum/Jowar, Pearlmillet/ Bajra are given the status of major millets and other millets, often referred as minor millets are Finger millets, Kodo millets, proso millet and many more. They are grown with limited water resources and usually without any fertilizers or other inputs by a multitude of small farmers in many countries. Therefore, and because they are mostly consumed by disadvantaged groups, they are often referred to as "coarse grains" or "poor people's crops". They are not usually traded in the international markets or even in local markets in many countries. The farmers seldom, therefore, have an assured market in the case of surplus production.

The spatial distribution of millets either as a primary crop or as allied crops largely depends on the growing habitat and the amount of rainfall the region receives. The millets are the hardest grains and can sustain and flourish even in the most adverse agro-climates with poorest quality soil, minimum or, almost nil water, most adverse weather variations and lastly, the miniscule care and management practices.

Millets can be cultivated throughout the year, whereas wheat and paddy are seasonal crops. It is learnt that minor millets such as sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, foxtail millet, etc can grow without irrigation and are nutritious than rice.

Forgotten Grains

The millets exhibit unimaginable levels of inter and intra specific diversity, a lot of which we have lost and very few were recorded and documented at centres like, ICRISAT and NRC Sorghum. After the green revolution, top priority was accorded to rice and wheat. Hundreds of high-yield varieties were introduced by agricultural research centres. But at the same time, there was not much of an opportunity to grow crops like millets. Crops like sugarcane, paddy and wheat require more water. To fulfill this demand, underground water was exploited.

In the four decades between 1966 and 2006, while the total production of rice more than doubled (125%), from 38mt to nearly 86mt, and the output of wheat jumped threefold (285%), from just over 18mt to 70mt, the total production of all kinds of millets has actually come down by 2.4%— from almost 18.5mt to below 18mt. This decline in the production of millets can be largely attributed to the fall in the cultivated area, from over 36mha half-a-century ago to just over 21mha at present. Over the last 40 years, over 40% of the areas that were under millet cultivation is now being used to grow other crops.

Fighting the cause for Climate Change

If the temperature rises, the crop pattern and the farming system will be affected badly. Millets are climate change compliant crops and many of these crops can fix carbon in the soils thereby becoming agents of carbon.

Millets are highly energy and resource efficient crops, as with the least utilization of inputs it yields considerably by virtue of its acclimatization, structural and physiological adaptability, and drought and disease-pest evading mechanisms. Indian agriculture with more dependence on monsoon and seasonal rains, could well readopt the forgotten crops to regain the dominance over the coarse grains and reorient the agricultural prosperity in the state with the available resources.

Threat to Wheat and Rice

Climate change portends less rain, more heat, reduced water availability and increased malnutrition. It is important to note that, once we cross the ceiling of two degree celsius temperature rise, wheat may disappear from our farming system.

Wheat is an extremely thermal sensitive crop and it can’t withstand this temperature rise. Similarly, rice is the most consumed grain in the world and the demand is increasing over the years. But current paddy cultivation methods are affecting the environment. Most farmers follow paddy farming in the standing water system. But methane gas emanating from inundated rice fields is a greenhouse gas. If these two crops disappear from the farming sector, then which are the crops that will fill the gap?

Millets are the answer. Millets can be cultivated throughout the year, whereas wheat and paddy are seasonal crops. Millets are capable of growing under drought conditions; they can withstand higher heat regimes. Millets like Kodo millet, Proso millet, Little millet, Finger millet, Barnyard millet and Pearl millet grow under non-irrigated fields and also in low rainfall area with 200 to 500 mm. They can still provide a good yield under water scarcity.

Food security issues

One more problem that could occur in the near future is food insecurity. Wheat and rice may give only food security, but millets give multiple securities like food, fodder, health, nutrition, and livelihood. More over, millets attract neither pest nor disease. Therefore, their need for pesticides is nil.

Increasing malnutrition has become a major problem for the government. Millets can be used to meet this demand, as they are a storehouse of nutrients.

The Neglect

Policy neglect, lack or, very few research attention limited to the dry tracts, MSP and subsidies, Irrigation facilities creation and the phenomenon of Green revolution has robbed the significance of these precious, but not much precarious grains. The government policy of thrusting rice and wheat on all states through the PDS killed millet cultivation. The output declined from 18.41mt in 1966 to 17.97mt in 2006, a fall of over 2%. On the other hand, wheat production went up from 18.1mt to 69.73mt in the period, an increase of 284%. Rice production rose 125% during the period.

Millet-based bio diverse cropping systems can come as a solution to this agrarian crisis as it liberates farming from water intensive cropping such as rich or wheat to a nature commodity controlled farming system.

Helping hands

Some NGOs’ and Government bodies have initiated commendable programs to save these grains. The Millet Network of India (MINI), is one among such organizations working for the cause of promoting the millets in the Indian diets. According to P V Satheesh, Convenor, Millet Network of India (MINI), millet farming systems offer food security apart from fodder, health and nutritional security. "We are persuading the Centre to allocate at least 40% of its food security budget to millet-based farming and food systems," he said.

The NGO is also trying to create “parliamentarians of millets” with participation from the policy makers, NGOs and other stake holders.

Millet Network of India is an alliance consisting of more than 65 institutions, scientists, farmers, civil society groups representing over 15 states. The organisation has sought priority to millets as part of the Food Security Act. “We are seeking recognition of millets as a climate change compliant crop and promotion of its cultivation and consumption,” says P V Satheesh.

Grains of Health

Millets, namely jowar, bajra, ragi, foxtail millet, little millet, and kodo millet not only require less water to grow but are also super cereals with more nutrients than other food grains. These crops are still the principal sources of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals for millions of the poorest people. The protein content in millet is very close to that of wheat; both provide about 11% protein by weight. Millets are also rich in B vitamins, especially niacin, B6 and folic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Millets also have more fibre than rice and wheat. Some varieties have as much as 50 times more fibre than rice. A bowl of halwa made of finger millets or ragi is 30 times rich in calcium than a bowl of rice.

If a farmer grows millets, he gets a large quantity of fodder, besides the nutritious crop. The fodder helps him feed animals, which give enough farmyard manure, thus leading to a fall in use of chemical fertilisers. So, the crop is a bulwark against drought and debt, not to speak of malnutrition.

Millet days ahead

The new opportunities provided by climate change issues including drought and the National Food Security Act must be fully seized upon by governments to rejuvenate farming systems as well as livelihoods in the dry land areas by offering pride of place for millet based farming systems. These can be the best possible solution against malnutrition in the country, if included in PDS, so as to create a huge market for millet farmers acting more as an incentive. Government can also include millets into the National Food Security Act in the backdrop of the unprecedented drought and looming climate change crisis.

Being a largely agricultural country, India has one solution, and this could be adopted in any country with minor changes. It seems that our local millets could yet provide the best answer to the global problem.

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