What are millets?
As described in the Oxford Dictionary, millet is “a type of plant that grows in hot countries and produces very small seeds”. The grains—consumed in many indigenous cultures, including the Indian subcontinent, over centuries—are derived from various warm-weather cereal crops that belong to the grass family, not dissimilar to rice and wheat.
According to a report by the Indian Institute of Millet Research, these small-seeded plants are grouped together not on a taxonomic basis but rather an agronomic one. Many assume that millet is a single variety of grain, but there are over 500 varieties of millets within the main types.
Types of millets:
Millet is broadly classified into two categories. One is major millets, which includes the likes of pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar). The second category of millets is known as minor millets, and includes finger millet (ragi), kodo millet, barnyard millet, little millet, proso millet and foxtail millet. These millets are known across many regions of the country, where they are referred to by local names.
Millets have traditionally been part of everyday meals in many semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa for many centuries. A number of factors led to a gradual decline in the production and consumption of millets in the 20th century, especially during the latter half. These included the labour-intensive process of dehulling many millet varieties, a perception of millet as ‘poor people’s food’, its use as fodder for cattle and birds and the Green Revolution, which promoted the production of wheat and rice over other grains to curb food shortage. While the Green Revolution helped propel India towards higher rice and wheat production starting from the 1960s, the emphasis came at a great cost to millet production.
Nutritional and ecological merits of forgotten foods:
Food is one of the most fundamental necessities of life. However, food isn’t merely a substance for staying alive, but a means to enhance the quality of life by assuring the required nourishment for human beings. The lack of dietary diversity has been cited as a major cause of malnourishment, not just in India but across the globe.
With the long-standing popularity of rice and wheat and their frequent usage in daily meals as well as packaged food products, nutrition experts suggest the need for alternate foods that can fill the nutritional void left by the overconsumption of a few grains. Millets have arrived at the foreground, following and in tandem with the rapidly expanding use of cereals such as oats, quinoa—a South American staple, and teff which is traditional to South Africa.