2023 is being celebrated as the International Year of Millets. As the celebrations reach almost the middle of the year, India is leading the way in promoting millets across the world. This article tries to understand the significance of millets for international issues, India’s role in the declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets, its diplomatic efforts to situate millets as a soft power tool of its foreign policy, the challenges ahead of potential millet revolution and possible solutions.
United Nations has designated the year 2023 as the International Year of Millets. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at its 75th session in 2021 adopted the resolution for the same unanimously. The resolution was sponsored by India, its first proposer in 2017. The Food and Agricultural Organization also backed the proposal.
The resolution itself highlighted the importance of millet in the current global scenario where food insecurity, unsustainable commercial agriculture, overuse of fertilizers, and changing climate dynamics, increasing cases of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cancers are the pressing issues. The active promotion of millets in regular diet practices can help to tackle these issues. India, Asia’s largest producer of millets (80%) which also contributes to 20% of millet production across the globe has taken the lead to promote and branding millets.
The Significance of Millets
Millets have been cultivated as a crop and consumed as a regular staple food since prehistoric, ancient times. It is grown in more than 131 countries cutting across temperate, subtropical and tropical grasslands. Millets have many varieties. Major varieties are sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet. They are known to have more nutrition and protein compared to regular cereals like rice and wheat. Nutri cereals is another name for millet as they are a storehouse of vitamins, fibers and minerals. Millets are also gluten-free, helpful for improving the digestive system.
Another advantage of millets is that they can be cultivated in dry areas having very less water supply. While growing one kg of rice in India, requires 5000 liters of water, a one kg crop in the millets category needs only 650 to 1200 liters of water. They are also known to increase the fertility as well as productivity of the land as they release more nitrogen. Millets are also pest resilient, reducing the expenditure on chemical pesticides.
India’s domestic-level efforts to promote millet
India is known as the largest cultivator and exporter of millets. It declared 2018 as a national year for Millets. India’s budget for 2023-24 introduced a new term ‘Sri Anna’ for millets. This means that it’s the best grain crop having divine grace. Apart from the new terminology, India has kept cultivation, promotion and consumption of millets at the forefront of its agenda for sustainable agriculture and sustainable income for the farmers.
Economic Survey of 2021-22 pointed out that a Sub Mission of Nutri Cereals is run in 212 districts in 14 states. Under the National Food Security Mission, millets have been introduced to provide nutritional support. India also has more than 500 start-ups working under the millets value chain while the National Institute of Millets Research (NIMR) has incubated more than 250 start-ups under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana- Remunerative Approaches for Agriculture and Allied Sectors Rejuvenation (RKVY RAFTAAR)
The progress and initiatives to bring millets back into the regular diet and as major Kharif crops have also resulted in efforts to promote millets production as India’s unique identity at the international level. Since 2018, India has made several attempts to make its efforts visible, branding and marketing them at the international level.
Millets in India’s Foreign Policy and Diplomacy
India not only took the lead to promote its millets through the celebration of International Year for millets but also has time and again highlighted how its emphasis on millets can bring positive changes in the vulnerable food and nutritional security scenario of South Asia and the world.
In one of the speeches, PM Modi connected millets as a symbol of India’s commitment to Global Good. While millets can address the problem of food insecurity in the Global South, they can also impact the food habits of the Global North. The food in Global North is subject to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Millets can help to consume a clean, healthy and nutritious diet for people in the Global North.
As the largest cultivator, India can brand its might of the millets both in Global North and Global South. As most of the millets are produced in India, they can be thus normatively part of India’s soft power agenda for Yoga, Ayurveda, solar energy and its digital financial infrastructure contributing to the idea of Global Good.
India’s promotion of millets as a solution to food security issues across the world might particularly appeal to the African nations that also produce significant amounts of millets. In fact, Africa is the largest millet producer continent-wise. Millets thus are a tool for India to enhance its development partnerships in Africa and Global South while opening up more space for its millets products in the markets of Global North.
Thus, Millets are part of the Indian foreign policy agenda in a normative as well as pragmatic way. Millets can be a new driver for South-South Cooperation under India’s leadership. Another example of this is what was called Murukku Diplomacy in 2021.
Indian Mission at the UN Headquarters in New York distributed a savory snack, Murukku, to the diplomats ahead of the passing of the resolution declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Indian diplomats also conveyed the importance of millets from various aspects from health to agriculture to climate change. The Murukku Diplomacy saw results when the resolution was passed unanimously, by all 193 UN Members. Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia and Senegal also joined India while proposing the resolution.
India introduced MIIRA in the first meeting of the Working Group of Agricultural Ministers of G20 in February 2023. MIIRA stands for Millets International Initiative for Research and Awareness. Its objectives are to strengthen research on millets, and their benefits, and to develop new varieties of millets resistant to pests and are more productive.
It also aims at encouraging mass production of millets and increasing consumer awareness about millets for mass consumption. The funding for MIIRA will start from India’s seed money and then the rest G20 members will pay membership fees. Initiatives like MIIRA reflect India’s willingness to carry forward its millets programme at the global level.
Global Millets (Sri Anna) Conference
After the inaugural event for International Year of Millets 2023 in Rome, Italy organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), India proposed to host the first Millets Global Conference. The conference was organized in New Delhi in March 2023. The conference was full of meetings where agricultural ministers from six countries were present. Many Indian celebrities attended the event along with Farmers Producers Organizations (FPOs), NGOs etc. Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the conference with the release of a customized postal stamp as well as a coin of the International Year of Millets.
Challenges for Potential Millet Revolution in India and at the Global Level under its Leadership
Though millets have been promoted as an alternative to mainstream cereal crops like wheat and rice, millet production, processing and consumption are full of challenges. What was termed as the Millet revolution can be only successful at the global level if these challenges which are not insurmountable are tackled with conscious efforts.
Millets have a very low productivity rate as compared to wheat and rice. According to India’s Budget Document of 2021-22, Sorghum (Jowar) is India’s fourth most important crop after Wheat, Rice and Maize in terms of area. However, its productivity is 1110 kg/ha while the productivity of rice is 2809 kg/ha. As millets are grown in less fertile lands and drylands, increasing the productivity of millets using biotechnology and nanotechnology becomes crucial. It will ensure better income for farmers and a sustainable supply of millet to markets.
The decline in the area under Millet cultivation
Worldwide, the area sown to millet has remained relatively stable at around 38 million hectares for the past two decades. However, in India, the area under millets cultivation has reduced dramatically, almost by half since the 1990s. The yield of millet crops however has been increasing continuously.
Difficulties in Millet Processing
Millets processing machines are less efficient as millets grains differ in grain size and other aspects. So one machine is not sufficient for tasks like dehulling. Separation of the husk of millets and collecting is also a very challenging task as the husk often gets mixed with grains many times. Also, as millets are hundred per cent gluten-free, it becomes difficult to make some products out of them.
Challenges in the consumption of millet
First of all, there is no significant awareness among people about the benefits of millet. Also, millets are not readily available to consume in most parts of the world. Imports of millets at large scale will make them expensive. Also, the shelf life of millets is also very less making them vulnerable to damage if not stored properly. Also, the taste and coarse structure of millets grains are not so appealing to many people. Millets grains are not part of regular culinary practices in most parts of the world.
Even in India, millet food is not preferred by people over rice, wheat or maize products. Maize products are part of large café chains in metro cities. This is not the case with millets. Thus, despite government efforts to increase the production and exports of millets, unless the consumption both in domestic and international economies goes up significantly, millets won’t have mass entry into the Indian and world markets as ready-to-eat products or Nutri cereals consumed as staple food every day.
Conclusions and Solutions to the Challenges
Millet Revolution which India is aiming at does not limit itself to the domestic level. It’s trying to promote millets through its foreign policy agenda as well and cautiously weaving it within India’s Soft Power narrative. India’s broader foreign policy doctrine aims to project India as a ‘responsible power contributing to Global Good.’
Millets have also become part of this doctrine of India’s contribution to the Global Good of food and nutritional security, climate-resilient agriculture and healthy lifestyles. Initiatives such as declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets, the Global Millets Conference or the upcoming India-Africa International Millet Conference in August are part of these efforts at the international level.
These initiatives are still nascent steps to actually bring out the millet revolution in production, processing and consumption. The real challenge before India and other countries supporting increased consumption of millets is to increase the productivity of millets at rapid space, make quality seeds of millets grains available at large scale, and persuade consumers about the health and other benefits of millets. Given the varieties of millets available in India itself, the challenge is also the standard branding of millets.
Given the hurdles, making millets as a people’s movement as India is visualizing is a herculean task. As India’s millets go global, it opens up numerous possibilities of partnerships for research to increase productivity, developing new varieties and millets processing. Agricultural Universities of millets-producing nations can set up exclusive Centers of Excellence to research millets. The best practices can be shared.
Concepts like millets cafes which are opening up a few places can be taken into account and monitored effectively in terms of their impact on consumer habits. In case of a positive scenario, such cafes can be opened at other locations as Millets Café Chains to attract the young population.
Promotion of such sustainable business models based on millets products showing the good impact on human health can give confidence to farmers to cultivate, millet-prenur to invest in millets and consumers to eat millets. Coordinated efforts of governments, civil society and international organizations can make the International Year of Millets effective and impactful. The efforts shall last more than a year to strive to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) like Zero Hunger, No Poverty and Good Health Being using the might of millets.
- Government of India (2022) National Conference on Kharif Campaign, 2022 Report, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, 19th April, 2022, New Delhi https://agricoop.nic.in/en/Conf
About the Author
Chaitanya is a Research Intern at IMPRI