Faced by the vagaries of climate change and its highly damaging impact on agriculture, we need to look at ways of building resilience into our food systems and ensuring an adequate supply of food grains. Millets can be a big part of the solution.

Millets as a food crop were well known in India and widely used. Many kinds of these small, nutritious grains were eaten as rice and some like Ragi (Eleucine Coracana) were made into a flour and then into roti. This changed after the Green Revolution but the change was seen more in North India where millets practically disappeared from daily diets . This did not happen in the South however where millets continued to be eaten and did not get displaced by wheat.

Then an interesting development took place this year which brought back attention to millets. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) declared 2023 to be the Year of Millets.

The highlighting of millets on the global platform was mooted by Dr M. S. Swaminathan some years ago, to focus attention on the importance of these highly nutritious grains which had ceded agricultural space to wheat and rice and fallen by the wayside after the Green Revolution.

Ever since the UNFAO declaration, campuses across India are holding programs on millets. Every agriculture research station is conducting awareness programs, the better ones are doing exhibitions and demonstrations.

How sorely such awareness programs are needed is seen in the near blank responses of the majority of visitors when asked what they knew about millets. Nothing.

Why are millets important, one might ask. India is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world and sits near the bottom on the list of countries facing high levels of malnutrition. India, also, like many countries in the tropical zone, is going to bear the worst brunt of climate change. This means a rocky agriculture scenario with unstable food production.

Wheat, North India’s main Rabi (winter) crop is anticipated to suffer significant declines in production as temperatures rise with global warming. This becomes exceedingly critical since wheat along with rice, is the mainstay of India’s buffer stocks and its subsidised food programs.

These are the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Mid Day Meal Scheme in schools, The ICDS ( Integrated Child Development Services Scheme) as well as the Annapurna and Antyodaya food schemes.

Millets can play a major role in addressing these challenges to India’s food and nutrition security. That’s because millets are hardy crops with a wide adaptation window which allows them to grow in diverse agro-ecological zones.

They grow in high altitudes, in low altitudes like the plains of India and almost everywhere else. They need little water and have high temperature tolerance. Rice and wheat, even maize, the main staples are not so flexible and are adapted to specific agro climatic zones.

On top of all this, the photosynthesis system of millets is more efficient than that of wheat and rice. In scientific jargon, millets are C4 crops whereas rice and wheat are C3 crops.

The C4 crops have a higher water use efficiency and are productive in climatic conditions that are hot and dry. The C3 crops on the other hand, suffer under hot and dry conditions and lose productivity. That is the reason, millets will perform well under the hot and water stressed conditions brought about by climate change and will hence stabilise food production better than wheat and rice. So much for the production of food grains.

The other stellar role that millets can play is in alleviating malnutrition. This is especially relevant for states like Uttarakhand which show appalling figures for malnutrition.

Millets are nutrition bombs that are loaded with vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and several others. Finger millet, also called Ragi and Madua, is loaded with calcium. Barnyard millet called Sawa in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Madira in Uttarakhand, is a powerhouse of iron.

These micronutrients are the key to good health and their deficiency is the main cause of undernutrition and malnutrition. Mainstreaming millets and incorporating them in family diets will go a long way in helping to improve the nutritional status of our poor. But to get there, a lot of work needs to be done.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and chairperson of the research and advocacy group Gene Campaign.