scorecardFrom underdog to Bill Gates-sponsored superfood: Have millets finally managed to make a comeback?
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From underdog to Bill Gates-sponsored superfood: Have millets finally managed to make a comeback?

From underdog to Bill Gates-sponsored superfood: Have millets finally managed to make a comeback?
IndiaIndia3 min read
Picture yourself as a recruiter, wading through a sea of applicants until you encounter one who defies logic. This candidate stands out not only for their exceptional talent but also for their remarkable resilience in challenging situations. What's even more baffling is their willingness to work for a fraction of the usual pay. Yet, despite their brilliance, the corporate world seems oblivious to their existence. This is the tale of the forgotten millet.

Millets deserve a regular spot on everyone’s plates. Not only does the grain boast a nutritional profile that could blow the knockers off of anyone, the crop is so fast-growing and drought-resistant that some varieties have been helping West African families survive through extreme droughts for the past five millenia. As Bill Gates puts it in a recent GatesNotes post, this makes millets “older than toilets, the wheel, and even writing”!

Despite India being such a massive producer, consumer and exporter of millets — which includes varieties such as ragi, bajra, kangni and more — the grain has only lost in nationwide popularity to wheat and other crops in the past few decades. This fallout was majorly due to the fact that it is relatively tougher to process the raw seeds to a readily cookable stage, compared to other staples such as rice and wheat.

However, a much-needed resurgence began brewing after the Indian government, recognising the nutritional and other benefits of the crop, declared 2018 as the national year of millets. A mere five years later, the superfood received yet another massive boost after the UN proclaimed 2023 as the International Year of Millets, or IYOM.

As a result, the course of the year saw many events, campaigns, and policy discussions to promote millets within the nation and worldwide. According to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, as many as 12 Indian states, including Chhattisgarh and Odisha, now boast policies promoting the adoption of millets. New Delhi also hosted a Global Millets Conference last year, marketing the benefits of the “underutilised” crop to national and international stakeholders and potential markets outside the country. Many large food companies, such as Nestle, Britannia and Patanjali, have begun investing in value-added millet products.

In another significant step, India partnered with Nigeria to lead the millet revolution last year. The nations hoped that this would inspire other African nations to follow suit, helping address their formidable hunger and malnutrition issues. Bidding to market how delicious the ingredient can be, India proudly showcased a splendid menu of delicious millet-based dishes at the G20 summit dinner last year.

The effectiveness of the millet push is still a matter of debate, however. While July 2023 reports suggested a bountiful sowing season for millets like bajra, September data from the Department of Agriculture showed a decrease in the area sown for other millets such as jowar and ragi compared to the previous year.

Even Prashant Parameswaran, the Managing Director of the Tata Consumer Soulfull, expressed that, despite the rising popularity of millet-based foods, there is still a while to go before we will reach the full potential that millets have to offer. As per latest accounts, the sown area of millets only accounts for about 11% of the total foodgrains in India.

Amidst the uncertainties of escalating crop-growing challenges, the resurgence of millets provides a beacon of certainty amid the turbulence of food security issues. Their resilience continues to shine through, as these crops require 70% less water and mature in just half the time compared to wheat, making them a promising solution to malnutrition, especially in countries plagued by harsh climates and micronutrient deficiencies. Mainstreaming millets represents not just a practical solution but a transformative pathway toward a future where nourishment, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability intersect harmoniously.