Millets have become de rigeur for a variety of valid reasons. After seven or eight decades of policy neglect, they are back in favour globally, as the pitfalls of growing too much wheat and rice can no longer be denied. The dominant varieties of these staples require large quantities of fertilizer, chemicals and water. They have been linked to lifestyle diseases. Meanwhile, the natural resource economy and nutritional benefits of millets are beyond dispute. The UN has declared 2023 as ‘International Year of the Millets’, amidst climate uncertainty and the need to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. However, this shift poses policy challenges. The recently organised millets conclave by this newspaper flagged issues on both the demand and supply side.

On the supply side, the numbers are evocative. While wheat and rice yields are 3.5 tonnes and 2.8 tonnes per hectare, respectively, average yield for millets is 1.3 tonnes per hectare. While the government plans to raise millet output from current levels of 17-18 million tonnes to 45 million tonnes by 2030, this cannot be accomplished without higher yields, as land availability is limited. A viable ecosystem is needed to raise millet output. This entails providing quality seeds, with better efficiencies in processing so that the recovery improves from about 55 per cent in the case of minor millets to over 70 per cent. Scientists at the conference pointed out that with proper crop management practices and seed improvements, yields up to 2.2 tonnes per hectare have been recorded in the case of finger millet (ragi) in Karnataka. Even as scientists are working on high yielding varieties, farmers must get a decent price. An MSP for minor millets could be considered, backed up by procurement and marketing infrastructure. In terms of institutional reforms, FPOs should be at the forefront in managing seed conservation and contracts, and extension services must be robust.

Millets are the mainstay for small and marginal farmers in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat, which account for 83 per cent of total millets output. Higher yields and lower costs could reduce rural distress and migration in rainfed regions.

However, the supply push must be accompanied by a growth in domestic and global demand. Within India, millets must reclaim ground as a staple. Waiving GST on millet-based products and snacks could encourage investment in processing and also help create demand. India accounts for 19 per cent of the global production of millets, with the US at 11 per cent. But India accounts for 40 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively, of the global output of bajra and jowar. It is in bajra, ragi and minor millets that India can create an export impact, as sorghum is produced globally. A demand transformation must begin from rural India, where traditional knowledge of cultivation and cuisine needs to be revived. Millet melas and other health awareness initiatives can have an impact. Millets are super foods, and should be perceived as such.

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