Are Millets the Answer to Our Food Security and Sustainability Challenges?
Once considered inferior coarse grains, millets are now recognised as super grains due to their significant health, economic, and environmental benefits. Governments, fitness experts, startups, FMCG giants, and health-conscious individuals are all talking about millets.
With the United Nations declaring 2023 the International Year of Millets and the Indian government promoting them extensively, it’s high time to explore the rise of millets and their potential impact on the global economy.
The Fall and Rise of Millets in India
In the past, millets were a staple food for Indian soldiers and common people alike. However, the Green Revolution led to an abundance of rice and wheat, resulting in millets losing favour. Despite being considered inferior to wheat and rice, millets remained a part of ethnic cuisine across India.
Today, millets account for only 5-6% of the national food basket, a decline from nearly 40% before the Green Revolution. The Indian government’s recent efforts to promote millets as Shree Anna, meaning “blessed food,” aim to restore their prominence in the country’s food culture.
Millets, small-seeded grasses categorised as nutri-cereals, include sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, and other varieties. They have been a part of human diets since the Indus Valley civilization and are mentioned in the Yajurveda. India’s policy initiatives, such as the Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millet Production in 2012 and the declaration of millets as “nutri cereals” in 2018, have paved the way for millets’ resurgence in the country.
The Economic and Environmental Advantages of Millets
Millets offer several economic benefits, including being cheaper to grow compared to rice and wheat. These drought-resistant crops require less water and are less reliant on expensive fertilisers and pesticides. In a world grappling with climate change, erratic rainfall, and dwindling groundwater levels, millets emerge as a sustainable and economically viable option for farmers.
However, low-profit margins and lack of minimum support price (MSP) have deterred farmers from cultivating millets. The Indian government is now considering including specific millet varieties under MSP to encourage their growth.
India is planning to become one of the top three exports of millets by 2025, with a target of $100 million in exports. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) is leading efforts to promote value-added and processed millet forms globally, targeting hypermarkets and retail chains in 50 countries. The Indian government is also creating Harmonized System (HS) codes for smoother millet exports. By exporting value-added millet products, India can capture a more significant share of the global market.
Attracting FMCG Giants and Startups Alike
With an expected growth rate of 4.5% from 2021 to 2026 in the worldwide millets market, major FMCG corporations like Nestle, ITC, Britannia, HUL, and Tata Consumer are focusing on creating and broadening their range of millet-derived products. Breweries like Bira 91 are even experimenting with millet beers. The increasing interest in millets is also giving rise to a new breed of entrepreneurs, or “millet preneurs,” who are creating niche brands and products centred around these nutri-cereals.
Companies like Slurrp Farm, Soulfull, and Millet Mama offer an assortment of millet-based products, from cereals and snacks to ready-to-cook meals. With the backing of investors, these startups are tapping into the increasing demand for healthy, sustainable, and local food options.