Millet on the menu: Climate cleaver crops make a comeback

Story and Photography by Samara McRae

More than 1.3 billion people live in India, with 12 million in Bangalore alone. And if estimates are correct India will need to feed an additional 394 million people by 2050. 

Yet many agricultural regions are chronically water-stressed and struggle with cumulative nutrient deficiencies putting farmers under pressure to produce viable crops. But an innovative few are hopeful of a brighter outlook, replacing rice and sugarcane with less thirsty crops.

Travel 83 kilometres out of Bangalore and the sound of the horns and traffic of the city decreases. The breeze blows gently, offering the hope of new aromas – of crisp air and freshly turned, rich, soil. Aralukuppedoddi village, however has a dry atmosphere, and is under immense distress due to water scarcity.

Aralukuppedoddi in Karnataka is home to just 300 people. According to local farmer, Nanjunda Swamy, there are only 40 households, as 30 or 40 percent of the young have moved to cities in search of jobs that aren’t there.

The villagers are faced with many of the usual difficulties that come from living in rural India, but the hardest among them is the shortage of water and the inequitable distribution of it.

Nanjunda Swamy, 25, is working to keep his family’s millet farm alive. Food made from millet has been an essential part of India’s cuisine for a very long time, but over the years the government has offered incentives for farmers to grow white rice and sugarcane making these crops more favourable than the traditional millets. 

Millets are small-seeded grasses which grow well in dry zones and being rain-fed crops they will grow while needing only minimum soil moisture. It also grows all year round.

“There are nine types of millet, foxtail millet, finger millet (ragi), pearl millet (Bajra), barnyard millet, Kodo millet, little millet and proso Millet,” Nanjunda says.

tWS: NANJUNDA focuses on long term solutions like growing crops which consume less water such as millets and pulses. He describes how he sometimes feels discouraged and has thought of taking to hybrid, commercial crops for financial security. However, he wants to stick to an organic, more sustainable route as long as he possibly can.

He says all can be used in the preparation of different meals, savoury or sweet.

Millet man and scientist Dr Khadar Vali describes millet as “amazing food grains offered by God”. 

Dr Vali earned his PhD at the Indian Institute of Science and completed post-doctoral research in the USA on environmental issues.

He now works to promote the benefits of eating and growing millets to groups of people in about a thousand locations throughout Karnataka. 

“Crops that should not be grown, are being grown through chemical farming methods,” he said, as he laments the high use of precious water resources and herbicides to support crops ill-suited to dry climates.

Sticking to traditions

After four decades of rigorous farming and a growing urban population, Bangalore and surrounding villages are facing a severe water crisis. 

So farmers and agricultural experts are looking at more sustainable ways to farm.

This includes farmers who are doubling down or embracing traditional farming ways which focus on long term solutions like growing crops that consume less water such as millets and pulses.

But it’s not easy.

Getting people to change what they eat is difficult. Changing an agricultural system is even more so. But going back to traditional ways, may be what’s needed both for lndia’s food security and for farmers trying to manage climate change, which in India means heat waves, droughts and floods.  

Nanjunda confesses he sometimes feels discouraged and has thought of taking to hybrid, commercial crops for financial security. But so far, he’s stuck with his values and wants to stay on the organic, more sustainable route as long as he possibly can.

Nanjunda lives with his mother and sisters close by his fields. Sadly, his father passed away five years ago, leaving the farm in his hands. Their family has been in agricultural production for as long as he can remember. 

“We grew high quality mangoes and produced premium silk, along with millets,” he said.

But since his father’s death, the family split up the agricultural properties. Now he and his mother look after the fields in order to generate income.

Nanjunda’s mother wants him to move into the city like most of the men who grew up in the village. She wants him to earn good money and start a family, but he is determined to keep traditional farming a part of his life. 

“I have always enjoyed being an organic farmer, however it comes with many challenges,’ he says as he hand-picks fox-tail millet from the ground. 

“And I worry there will be no one to keep this farm going once I’m gone.”

Zero-budget natural farmer, Prathiba Shiva believes millet is one of the solutions for food sustainability in India. 

“There is demand for food in the city where the population is increasing, and we need to feed them.”

“We make compromises. But this is the type of food that’s sustainable,” she says of millets and pulses.

She says the poor are already suffering, but it will be the rich who suffer tomorrow, particularly if climate change continues to bite.

“This part of the globe will suffer the most, but our farming is already in crisis. People do not talk about that; they talk about the water crisis,” she says.

Over the years, the government has created incentives for farmers to grow white rice, wheat and sugarcane. These crops have become more favourable than the traditional millets. But not only have these water-thirsty crops displaced traditional cultivation they now contribute to a potential environmental disaster. 

Barriers to change

Senior Director of Agriculture research, Namasivayam Vedamwrithy, says changing to sustainable millets and pulses is a sound idea, but the majority of farmers are small landholders and do not have the financial resources to implement changes, so they borrow money from a trader. Once the crop has been harvested, the trader takes it over.

“(And) there are a number of barriers [when it comes to growing millets] the poor used to eat them, never middle class or rich,” he says, explaining how millet’s reputation as a poor-man’s food prevents wide-scale acceptance.

However he says an increasing number of wealthy people are now starting to eat millet due to it’s nutritional and health value.

“There is a cultural change now,” he says.

tWS: THERE ARE nine types of millet, foxtail millet, finger millet (ragi), pearl millet (Bajra), barnyard millet, kodo millet, little millet and proso millet. All can be used in the preparation of different meals, savoury or sweet.

Abhishek Beeraiah comes from a farming background. 

But it was the Kaveri water crisis which got him to where he is now – owning a trendy restaurant in the inner suburbs of Bangalore, dedicated to shifting the foods back to old traditions and culture. 

“Lots of fights used to happen in my native district of Mandya,” the Millet Mama restaurateur  said.

“And farmers were losing hope.”

Water shortages linked to the Kaveri river system caused eruptions between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka every year, due to the water shortage and distribution between states.

And in some areas more than 90 percent of freshwater is used for agriculture.

Yet Abhishek says farmers still feel the pressure to grow more lucrative water-intensive crops, rather than growing low maintenance crops which adapt to droughts, poor conditions and don’t require pesticides. 

“It takes 5000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of rice,” Abhishek explains.

“But it takes 200 litres to grow one kilogram of millet.” 

“Growing millet consumes only 10 percent of water,” he said, which, he added meant it was less detrimental to the environment and would ensure there was enough fresh water for drinking and other essential purposes. 

This was the motivation for his restaurant.

tWS: FOOD MADE from millets has been an essential part of India’s cuisine for a very long time. Millets are small-seeded grasses which grow well in dry zones, and being rain-fed crops they will grow with minimum soil moisture. 

However, despite its health and water saving benefits, millet remains a hard sell among the wider population. 

While many people are becoming more aware of their visible water use, namely domestic uses such as cleaning, washing and bathing, they rarely take into account the overall volume of water being used to grow crops. 

And as Namasivayam Vedamwrithy notes, the government continues to offer subsidies for rice and wheat making its shelf-price cheaper for the average consumer, and rice remains the starch of choice in government schools that get free lunches.

“Why don’t the government let us give them millets, rather than rice and wheat,” he asks. 

“(The) government could also make traditional millets more economical so there is a demand for them.”

Unfortunately, because people make more money from growing rice, wheat and sugarcane, they are enticed to cultivate these crops. In the end this also gives them the money to buy water from water tankers, even during a water shortage, and with access to water and better income they see no need to change.

But returning to post-colonial practices when India grew millets and embracing millet as part of an overall sustainable agricultural plan, could ensure the people of India can feed themselves in the decades to come.

Samara McRae is a Gold Coast based journalism and communications student focusing on international news.  She has worked at Radio Metro since 2018 broadcasting on stations though network of stations including 105.7 Radio Metro and 4EB. Ms McRae interned with Channel 7 news at the Gold Coast and with the Brisbane and Gold Coast based Fotomedia creative agency. (See: LinkedIn).

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