The replacement of staples like wheat and rice with millets will take time and their expansion into non-traditional areas will be driven by breakfast snacks like poha and flour or batter blends, the top official of a Hyderabad-based millet research institute told the Federal in a Zoom interview with Vivian Fernandes (broadcast on 19 February, 2023).
While the production of nutri-cereals, as coarse grains like millets are known, has doubled since the 1960s despite a halving of area due to yield improvements, the per person availability has fallen as supply has not kept pace with the increase in population.
But concerted attempts made by central and state governments to raise production, create awareness about the health benefits of millets and an image makeover would increase demand for them provided there were improvements in palatability and shelf life, C V Ratnavati, who was acting director (till 15 February) of the Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR), Hyderabad, said.
In her budget speech earlier this month, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the production and consumption of millets would be promoted. IIMR, which is a centre of excellence in the field will be made a global hub for sharing of research, technologies and best practices, she said (though no budget allocation for the institute was made in the budget).
India is among the largest producer of millets. About 40 percent of the global output of millets other than sorghum or jowar is produced in India and 44 percent is produced in Africa, NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand wrote in a recent newspaper article.
The United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets to create awareness about their health benefits and their role in preventing or managing lifestyle diseases like diabetes. Though millets have carbohydrates, unlike wheat and rice, they release these slowly because of high fibre. They also have nutrients like protein, calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium. But they are hard to eat and a taste for them has to be acquired. States like Karnataka have attempted an image makeover by marketing them as Siridanya or rich grains. The Finance Minister preferred to call them Shree Anna in her budget speech. A former chief economic adviser called them ‘socially-useful crops’ in a previous edition of the Economic Survey as they are hardy, grow in dryland areas and use less water.
Ratnavati said IIMR had developed many millet-based products like biscuits, cookies, pastas and noodles. Poha made of jowar was a “hit,” she said. Some food companies were blending wheat flour with that of millet flour. They were also selling blended dosa batter.
The institute as well as state agricultural universities were trying to raise production by releasing high-yielding varieties and hybrids. This has resulted in the yield of coarse cereals rising from 577 kg a hectare in the late 1960s to 2,027 kg now. Seed hubs were being developed to increase the production of quality seeds. Farmer producer organisations were being enlisted to grow millets and encourage primary processing like cleaning and removal of foreign matter.
Many states had launched millet missions. They were procuring them at minimum support prices or giving cash incentives, Ratnavati said. The centre has a production-linked incentive scheme for millet-based products. Large companies with annual turnover of over Rs 250 cr and small enterprises with annual revenue of Rs 2 cr or more could apply for an incentive of 10 percent (tapering to 8 percent over five years) of their sales revenue from breakfast cereals and ready to cook or eat items with millet content of 15 percent or more.
Though production has doubled, NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand said demand displacement was happening. As per the National Sample Survey of 1993-94, the lowest 25 percent of households consumed 1.59 kg of coarse cereals per month. But the last household consumer expenditure survey of 2011-12, showed their consumption by this segment had fallen to 270 grams per month.
Ratnavati attributed this to the availability of fine cereals like wheat and rice at very low rates in the public distribution system. Under the National Food Security Act, 75 percent of the poorest rural households and 50 percent of the poorest urban households are entitled to 5 kg of rice, wheat or coarse cereals per month per person at Rs 3, 2 and 1 respectively. From 1 January, the government is giving this entitlement free.
(Top photo of C V Ratnavati courtesy of herself).