Getting people to change what they eat is tough. Changing a whole farming system is even tougher. The southern Indian state of Karnataka is quietly trying to do both, with a group of cereals that was once a staple in the state: millet.
Until about 40 years ago, like most of India, the people of Karnataka regularly ate a variety of millets, from finger millet (or ragi) to foxtail millet. They made rotis with it, ate it with rice, and slurped it up at breakfast as porridge.
In the sixties, the Green Revolution – a national program that led to the widespread use of high yielding crop varieties, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides – led to a dramatic increase in food grain production in India. But it also focused on two main crops – rice and wheat – which guzzle water.
“Crops that survived on rain rather than irrigation, and were far more sustainable, were forgotten,” explains Dinesh Kumar, who runs Earth 360, a non-profit organization in the neighboring southern state of Andhra Pradesh that helps popularize millets and train farmers to grow them. “Millets began to be seen as food for the poor,” says Kumar. “Rice was aspirational. White became right, brown became wrong.” These days, millets are used mostly for animal fodder.
Now, after nearly four decades of intensive farming (and growing urban populations which use a lot of water), most of India is facing severe water crises. So, many states are trying to come up with a more sustainable way to farm. And Karnataka is leading the way with its efforts with millets.
There are many factors that make millets more sustainable as crops. Compare the amount of water needed to grow rice with that for millets. One rice plant requires nearly 2.5 times the amount of water required by a single millet plant of most varieties, according to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid (ICRISAT), a global research organization helping to make millets more popular. That’s why millets are primarily grown in arid regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Millets can also withstand higher temperatures. “Crops like rice and wheat cannot tolerate temperatures more than 38 degrees Centigrade (100.4 Fahrenheit), while millets can tolerate temperatures of more than 46 degrees C (115 F),” says S.K Gupta, the principal scientist at the pearl millet breeding program at ICRISAT. “They can also grow in saline soil.” Millets could therefore be an important solution for farmers grappling with climate change – sea level rise (which can cause soil salinity to increase), heat waves, droughts and floods.
Millets are also more nutritious than rice or wheat. They are rich in protein, fibers and micronutrients like iron, zinc and calcium, and thus hold immense promise for India’s malnourished, especially those with micronutrient deficiencies.
Millets have a lower glycemic index (a measure of how fast our body converts food into sugar) than rice, which is thought to be one of the main factors contributing to the rise in rates of diabetes in India. Some scientists think eating millets could help Indians reduce their risk of this disease.
Switching to millets then should be easy. Or is it? A massive hurdle is that crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane are still way more profitable. “Unless millets match up to other crops, we can’t force farmers to grow them,” says Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka’s Minister for Agriculture. “We are not trying to replace rice or wheat entirely. We are simply trying to supplement them with more sustainable crops.”