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Millets: Tiny Eco-Warrior Grains Revolutionizing Sustainability, Women's Health, and Climate Change

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

By Sushmita Krishnan

One of the most memorable moments during my stay in Bengaluru, India was eating Ragi Mudde, a dish made of millet. With an appearance akin to a chocolate truffle, it was served to me as two earthy spheres accompanied by a cup of spinach sambar. - I wasn’t sure how to approach this dish. Glancing around, I observed people deftly breaking off small pieces, shaping them into smaller morsels, dipping them into the sambar, and savoring each bite. Not only was the taste and experience a revelation, but I also learned that the value of Ragi Mudde goes far beyond being a super-food delivering taste and nutrients - it also has major potential as a climate change solution.

After my meal in Bengaluru, I started learning more about millets, the grains used for Ragi Mudde. It turns out that the United Nations had declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. Millets, an ancient grain mostly grown in parts of Asia and Africa, are densely nutritious and drought resistant. It’s resilience in times of limited rain can be a game changer for a world grappling with the challenges of water shortages due to climate change. Millets could become our unsung heroes in solving issues related to food security.

Today’s resource-intensive industrial farming systems, while arguably efficient in global food production, rely on chemical inputs, massive monocultures, and intensive water use, leading to soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, loss of pollinators, and freshwater pollution. Agriculture contributes to 23% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, with the livestock sector accounting for 14.5%. Rice, a dietary staple for over 3.5 billion people, consumes a third of global freshwater resources and contributes to 20% of methane emissions. Rising global temperatures are expected to reduce rice production by 15% by 2050, warns the International Food Policy Research Institute.

These unsustainable methods of food production lead to food security that affects women disproportionately. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2021 report, the global gender gap in food insecurity worsened, with 31.9% of women experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity, compared to 27.6% of men. In 2019, a staggering one in three women aged 15 to 49 (571 million) suffered from anemia, as reported by the FAO. Malnutrition in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers perpetuates a cycle of deprivation that increases the risk of low birth weight, child mortality (accounting for 45% of under-five deaths), severe illnesses, poor academic performance, and reduced work productivity. The FAO emphasizes that achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030 requires women's empowerment and closing the gender gap in agriculture and food systems. Ensuring women's food security, nutrition, income, and access to decent employment opportunities is vital for enhancing their productivity, health, well-being, and that of their children and households.

As I explored the reality of unsustainable food practices over the years, I had a swift realization that the modest Ragi Mudde balls I had consumed possessed the potential to reverse some of the impacts of climate change and nurture women towards empowerment and robust health. In f South Asia, the diminutive millet grains unequivocally emerge as a cost-effective, highly nutritious, and environmentally friendly dietary choice for all. Millets find their primary cultivation in Asia and Africa, with India taking the lead as the largest producer, followed by Nigeria, Niger, and China. These grains rank among the earliest crops cultivated by humankind and continue to hold prominence as a traditional dietary staple in diverse regions across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Dr Khader Vali, popularly known as “the Millet Man of India,” has highlighted that for thousands of years now, humans have relied on a diverse range of grains including millets that naturally thrived through the seeds of over 800 different grasses, even in relatively infertile lands. This dietary diversity contributed to humans’ strength and well-being. Millets, in particular, possess a unique ability to absorb water directly from the atmosphere, making them highly water-efficient for cultivation. In contrast, crops like wheat, rice, and sugarcane demand substantial irrigation, often through dams and underground water pumping, leading to increased carbon emissions. Embracing millets as a sustainable food source for the future could unlock the potential to utilize approximately 80% of less fertile lands for agriculture. Moreover, the same quantity of millets, when compared to rice or wheat, has the capacity to provide sustenance for a larger population.

A banquet of millet-based dishes stands as a custodian of sustainability. What more are we awaiting?

It dawned on me that Ragi Mudde was merely the tip of the millet iceberg. With the burgeoning culinary industry, millets have become the foundation for local to global delicacies. For instance, Ragi can be used to make a variety of items from idly, a rice cake-like breakfast dish commonly eaten in South India, to birthday cakes. Can you envision pasta crafted from millets replacing traditional flour? With India leading the charge in declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets, I've had numerous opportunities to sample various millet delicacies. Below is a platter of millet-based dishes served at the Ministry of Environment Office in New Delhi as a testament to the adaptability and versatility of millets for a global audience.

The next time I visit a restaurant and choose to savor a millet-based dish, I will take satisfaction in knowing that I've contributed to a sustainable endeavor on our planet. After all, don’t countless small drops combine to form a mighty ocean? Look no further than your local supermarket to embark on a sustainable culinary journey.

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