In the face of rising temperatures and a growing water crisis, India is reviving an ancient crop to create a more resilient food system.

Millets are a group of highly nutritious small-grained cereals. Different species of millets originated in Africa and Asia and spread throughout the world on ancient trade routes. In India, they became a staple. People made rotis with millets, added water to the grains for their morning porridge, and even baked cookies with millets. But that all changed about half a century ago.

During the Green Revolution in the 1960s, national programs across India promoted high-yielding crop varieties like rice and wheat – along with accompanying fertilisers, pesticides, and irrigation techniques. The Indian government heavily subsidised rice over the following decades and it became the crop of choice. This led to a dramatic increase in food production, but it also influenced Indian farmers to transition away from millets, and instead focus on thirsty crops that require extensive irrigation.

Suddenly, the once popular millet was branded “poor man’s food” and fell out of fashion as rice and wheat became not just a popular food but also a status symbol. Now India is trying to change the image of millets and is promoting the crop in 2023 as part of the UN-endorsed “Year of the Millets” campaign. The aim is to promote the growth, consumption, and awareness of millets.

Millets: drought-resilient and nutrient-packed

Millets stand out as a crop of choice for several reasons. They are well adapted to arid and semi-arid regions and thrive in low rainfall environments. The grains require 70% less water than rice and can withstand high temperatures of up to 42 degrees Celsius. According to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics, millets are “usually the last crops standing in droughts”.

This drought-resilient crop also requires fewer or no fertilisers and pesticides in comparison to rice: millets are thus more ecologically friendly and cost-effective. Millets thrive on slopes and in intercropping systems – something not possible with rice – making millets a candidate for integrated agroecological farming.

Millets are also more nutritious than rice or wheat. They’re rich in carbohydrates, dietary fibre, vitamins (particularly B-complex), and essential minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Millets are also gluten-free and help reduce diabetes – a perfect offering for individuals with dietary restrictions.

This humble group of grain species sounds like a supreme option – so why isn’t everyone eating millets?

Promoting millets across India

Currently, supply chains focus on established wheat and rice production, and millets simply don’t fetch as high a value on the market. Processing millet – harvesting and cleaning – requires more labour: traditional dehusking methods require several hours of hard manual work. So, the drought-resilience and nutritional benefits alone are not enough to shift farming practices.

That’s why the Indian government is working to promote millets in 2023 and beyond. Influencers, chefs, and celebrities are sharing millet recipes across media outlets and social media. The government offers farmers a minimum support price to boost production. Initiatives like the National Program of Midday School Meals – a scheme that provides children living in rural areas with a free millet-packed meal per day – promote millet consumption.

Local states picking up on the trend

Local states are also picking up on the trend. Chhattisgarh – known as the “rice bowl of India” – is positioning itself as the new millet hub of India. The state has established the Millet Mission this year, with the ambition to promote the three most locally grown species – Kodo, Kutki, and Ragi – in local, regional, and global markets. Next to increasing farmer income, Chhattisgarh wants to provide more employment for women’s groups and young people through the processing of millets. Sameth Charitable Trust, Commonland’s local partner in Chhattisgarh, is raising awareness among local farmers about the Millet Mission and there are already 180 farmers registered for the minimum price.

The Network for Conserving Central India (NCCI) is currently evaluating pilot interventions in a number of villages in Chhattisgarh, as well as nearby Madhya Pradesh, on increasing millet production. These interventions range from trailing improved seed varieties and processing technologies to enhancing efficiency and producing high-quality millets for the market. One new technology is the “millet mixie” – a dehusking machine that dehusks millet in less than thirty seconds. An agrobiodiversity roundtable on Millets hosted by NCCI in August 2023 identified the lack of processing as a constraint to millet production and the need for more mechanisms to ensure access to market for farmers.

Millets: THE food for the future?

The fact that millets can grow in arid and semi-arid areas and high temperatures makes it an ideal choice for countries looking for drought-resilient food solutions. With government incentives in place, as well as trials to develop improved varieties and farming practices, India is one country where millets may well provide the way for a more climate-resilient food system. However, farmers will need continued assistance to adopt the crop more widely – and the full integration of millets into Indian farming systems will need consumers to change their eating habits and incorporate this powerful crop into their daily lives.