Read full article By Mahima Jain @ Devex Photo Credit: Pete Lewis
In March this year, the United Nations accepted India’s proposal to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets. This coarse and ancient cereal has been recognized for its climate-resilient characteristics, the potential to solve global nutritional security challenges, and as a sustainable alternative to major cereals.
“Millets are a smart food: they are good for your health, good for the environment as they survive with less water and have a low-carbon footprint, and good for the farmer as they are more resilient and climate-smart,” Joanna Kane-Potaka, executive director at Smart Food, a global initiative working on diversifying staples, told Devex.
More than 90 million people in Africa and Asia depend on millets. In comparison, wheat, rice, and maize are staple foods for 4 billion people. These three major cereals provide 51% of the world’s calorie intake.
“Our aim is to reintroduce millets as staples in Asia and Africa,” Kane-Potaka said.
While millet advocates point to its many benefits such as nutrition and hardy characteristics, breaking the hierarchy of cereals that have dominated the market and our plates for decades isn’t going to be easy. Millet does not benefit from subsidies, research, or investments that major crops do. Moreover, as was seen when superfoods like quinoa became popular, there are ethical considerations when foods that are largely consumed by marginalized communities in a local context suddenly find themselves in a mainstream, global market.
Subsidy-based food policies
Decades of policy and subsidy support by governments and international bodies have determined what dominates the food basket across the world. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union, and 12 emerging economies give over $700 billion a year to the agricultural sector, which includes payments to producers, input subsidies, consumer support, infrastructure investment, and research and development.
“What the common man eats is decided by the government and should be seen in the context of food policies,” said Vilas Tonapi, director at the Indian Institute of Millet Research.
In most countries, these subsidies benefit the major cereals. The U.S. government, for instance, subsidizes maize, wheat, rice, cotton, and soybean. China was criticized by the World Trade Organization for unfair subsidies to rice and wheat growers in 2019. In India, to resolve crippling food shortages, the Green Revolution of the 1960s promoted and subsidized the cultivation of high-yielding rice and wheat over indigenous crops such as millets.
The results aren’t surprising: global production of maize, wheat, and rice in 2019 stood at 1.17 billion tons, 764.49 million metric tons, and 495.78 million metric tons, respectively. In comparison, the production of sorghum, the most popular variety of millet, was just 57.97 million metric tons. Other varieties such as pearl millet, finger millet, browntop, foxtail, barnyard, teff, fonio, and proso accounted for far smaller shares.