International Year of Millets- Pros, Cons, Biopiracy Threat & Measures

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The world is set to observe 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’. India has hit the ground running, with regards to the IYM celebrations, hosting a millet luncheon for parliamentarians and foreign dignitaries, in addition to releasing a year-long list of activities and events to boost millet consumption.

Background:

  • In 2019, India put forth a proposal at the UN to declare 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’.
  • In March 2021, the UNGA adopted a resolution in favour of this proposal. 72 countries supported this resolution.
  • As part of the international observation, several activities and events are expected to be held, such as- conferences, field activities, issuance of stamps and coins, etc.
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What are millets?

  • Millets are small-grained cereals and were among the 1st plants to be domesticated by humans. For instance, there is evidence for millet consumption in the Indus civilization.
  • Apart from India, the countries like China, Japan and West African nations too have their own indigenous millet varieties.
  • These cereals are cultivated in over 130 countries and consumed as the traditional food in Asia and Africa.
  • Some of the examples of millets include:
    • Sorghum (jowar)
    • Pearl millet (bajra)
    • Foxtail millet (kangni/ Italian millet)
    • Little millet (kutki)
    • Kodo millet
    • Finger millet (ragi/ mandua)
    • Proso millet (cheena/ common millet)
    • Barnyard millet (sawa/ sanwa/ jhangora)
    • Brown top millet (korale)
  • Sorghum is the most cultivated millet crop in the world. It is mainly produced by:
    • USA
    • China
    • Australia
    • India
    • Argentina
    • Nigeria
    • Sudan
  • Bajra is another important millet crop. It is mainly cultivated in India and some African nations.

In India:

  • Millets are mainly cultivated as a Kharif crop.
  • According to the Agriculture Ministry, just 3 millet crops accounted for 7% of gross cropped area in India, namely:
    • Bajra (3.67%)- cultivated in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
    • Jowar (2.13%)- cultivated in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Madhya Pradesh
    • Ragi (0.4%)
  • Millets are mainly consumed in the states of Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

What are the pros?

  • These cereals are considered as ‘powerhouses of nutrition’. They are more nutritious than the fine cereals. They contain:
    • 65-75% carbohydrates
    • 7-12% protein
    • 2-5% fat
    • 15-20% dietary fibre
  • They require much lower volumes of water than paddy and wheat crops. This means that they can be cultivated in rainfed zones, without even requiring additional irrigation.
  • They have high green water footprint but low blue water footprint, unlike in case of paddy and wheat crops.
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What has been done?

  • The government announces MSP for Jowar, Bajra and Ragi crops.
  • In 2018, the Agriculture Ministry declared several millet varieties as ‘nutri cereals’. This is to promote their production, trade and consumption. These cereals are:
    • Jowar
    • Bajra
    • Ragi/ mandua
    • Minor millets:
      • Kangani/ kakun
      • Cheena
      • Kodo
      • Sawa/ sanwa/ jhangora
      • Kutki
    • Pseudo millets:
      • Buckwheat/ kuttu
      • Amaranth/ chaulai
  • In December 2022, the Prime Minister and other parliamentarians enjoyed a millet lunch. The menu for the feast included:
    • Ragi dosa and roti
    • Bajra soup
    • Foxtail millet Bisibelebath
    • Joladha roti
    • Ragi halwa
    • Jowar halwa
    • Bajra kheer, etc.
  • Coarse cereals are provided at 1 INR/ kg under the National Food Security Act, 2013 to eligible households.

What are the cons?

  • Very negligible quantities of coarse grains procured under the NFSA framework.
    • On November 1st, 2022, the Food Corporation of India had merely 2.64 lakh metric tonnes of coarse grains in its Central Pool stocks.
    • Comparatively, there were 265.97 LMT of rice and 210.46 LMT of wheat at the same time.
  • MSP benefit isn’t provided to rest of the millet crops, which considering the millet crop diversity in India, is quite a lot.
  • There is very low consumption of these grains.
    • According to the NSSO household consumption expenditure survey, less than 10% of the households consume millets.
    • This consumption of millets is especially low in the urban households.

Are these crops safe from biopiracy?

  • Apart from these cons, there is a significant challenge to millet cultivation in the form of biopiracy.  
  • At a time when cultivation of the conventional cereal crops is becoming difficult due to climate change, big businesses are turning their attention to millets. Oftentimes, these big companies overlook community rights in their pursuit of profits.
  • For instance, companies from Western nations like the Netherlands sought to exploit millet crops like ‘teff’.
    • Teff or Eragrostis tef is a cereal crop that was domesticated in Ethiopia some 3,000 years ago.
    • It continues to hold a prominent place in Ethiopian cuisine. It is rich in essential amino acids, fibres, calcium, iron, etc.
    • Ethiopians are highly reliant on this crop in times of famine.
    • In 2003, an MoU was signed by the Dutch company Larenstein Transfer and Soil and Crop Improvement and the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization for sharing of the teff seed for R&D purposes.
    • However, the Dutch company didn’t share the profit with Ethiopia. It instead went ahead and filed a patent for the processing of teff flour and other related products.
    • As a result, anyone using teff flour was required to pay a license fee to the company.
    • While this patent was revoked in 2019 (after litigations), it did its damage.
  • This isn’t a one off event, meaning, Indian millet varieties too are at a rick of biopiracy.

What is the way ahead?

  • Globally, the millet market is expected to register a 4.5% CAGR between 2021 and 2026.
  • In addition to this, climate change would force the states to diversify their agriculture to ensure food security. Cultivating millets is a low hanging fruit.
  • In view of the International Year of Millets celebrations, the government seeks to launch a people’s movement to promote the cereals and transform India into a ‘global hub for millets’.
  • As part of the IYM celebrations, multiple undertakings have been planned, such as:
    • Promotion of millets via Fit India App and through elite athletes
    • Organization of millet fair-cum-exhibitions
    • Eat Right Melas are to be organized
    • APEDA and Agriculture department to participation in trade shows (such as the upcoming one in Belgium) to showcase Indian millets
    • Embassies to conduct side events in foreign countries to promote millets
    • Millets to feature in G20 meetings and events
  • The Indian government has set a target to more than double the procurement of coarse grains to 13.72 LMT in the 2022-23 Kharif marketing season from the 2021-22 levels.
  • At the same time, India needs to remain vigilant about biopiracy concerns and ensure that profits arising from millet crops are shared appropriately with the communities that have been protecting them for generations. Here, implementing the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’s provisions regarding benefit sharing could help.

Conclusion:

Millets are the nutritional powerhouses, with their added advantage of climate resilience, that could help ensure food security in the future. India is already blessed with a rich diversity of millet varieties. Its integration into the mainstream agriculture system is a necessity.

Practice Question for Mains:

What are millets? What are the challenges faced in mainstreaming these ‘nutritional powerhouses’? (250 words)

Referred Sources
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