2023 is the International Year of Millets (IYM) and the goal of the United Nations is to highlight the enormous potential of millets to diversify food systems and enhance food security across the globe. Millets have long been stereotyped as traditional and bland food but with the International Millet Year, the entire millets industry and major players in the ecosystem, such as producers, exporters and the larger agro and food processing industry have an opportunity to popularize millet consumption as a routine part of the daily diet. As the biggest producer and consumer of millets, India can draw on its history and traditions to illustrate how millets are not only healthy and delicious but can play a vital role in creating a more resilient and sustainable agriculture basket and minimize the harms of monoculture.

Millets as a food group include many kinds of cereal crops and small grasses – many of which are predominantly native to Asia and Africa. In India, they have been cultivated for thousands of years and are part of the staple diet of many regions where there is a shortage of water and fertile soil for growing other staple grains. Currently, the world millet market is worth $ 13.5 bn and India grows about 39% of the world millets and over 80% of Asia’s millet supply. Some of the key millets cultivated in India are foxtail millet (kangni), sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), sama and kuttu. A lot of these grains are familiar to most Indians, if not part of their regular diet, then as ‘vrat’ foods to be consumed during periods of fasting.

Millet consumption in India dropped post the Green Revolution when other staple grains underwent major genetic research to increase crop yields. Increasing crop yields and shifting consumer demand side-lined millets to the rural areas of India. However, over the past decade, Indians have faced an onslaught of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes that largely linked to shifting diet patterns and malnourishment due to under consumption of healthy nutrients and overconsumption of rice and wheat. The need for a healthier alternative has grown organically and both larger healthcare ecosystem and consumers have started incorporating millets again in their diet to counter insulin resistance and blood sugar spikes. Compared to other grains, millets are high in protein, nutrient-dense, and an excellent source of fibre. Millets can be an excellent substitute to satisfy cravings without compromising on taste and health.

In terms of agriculture, millets are fairly easy to cultivate as they do not require much use of water or fertilizers. The seeds are pest-resistant and can be grown in semi-arid regions with little expense. Millets can thus be the reserve staple when the supply chains of other major cereals are disrupted. This is one of the major reasons why millets are so important in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger (SDG-2) by improving food security for many countries.

The Indian government and industry are both confronted with the obstacle of transforming the ‘brand image’ of millets. At present, most international consumers can only imagine millets as porridge or pancake like flatbreads but India has a diverse range of traditional recipes passed down through generations that can be ‘remixed’ to diversify the modern global palate. Over the last decade, the Indian government has recognized both the increasing usefulness and popularity of millet consumption and officially rebranded them from coarse grains to nutri-cereals in 2018. The government also declared 2018 as the National Year of Millets. Indian government on 03 March 2021 proposed to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations at the 56th Plenary Meeting under resolution number A/RES/75/263 to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets and the United Nations adopted the resolution. The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare at has taken a multi-stakeholder engagement approach (engaging all ministries of central and state/UT governments, Indian embassies globally, startups, hotels, exporters etc.) to achieve the aim of promoting Indian millets globally and increasing awareness about the benefits of millets to the Consumer, Cultivator and Climate.

In the Indian Budget 2023-24, the government has announced plans to support the Indian Institute of Millet Research, Hyderabad (IIMR) as a Centre of Excellence for sharing millets research and best practices at the global level. Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana – Remunerative Approaches for Agriculture and Allied Sectors Rejuvenation (RKVY-RAFTAAR) has been set up as a flagship scheme of MoA&FW, incubate Agristartups and provide them with financial aid. So far, they are already supporting 250+ startups giving a boost to innovation and research on millet-based foods. Ministry of Food Processing Industries has planned for a Mega Food Event in October 2023 to focus on millets and has been organizing various activities including logo competitions, tagline competitions, quizzes based on millets, and sharing of millet recipes in the lead up to the event. APEDA has set a target of exporting $ 100 million worth of millet-based food exports by 2024 and to organize 16 international trade expos for millets exporters, farmers and traders as well as Buyer Seller Meets (BSMs). 2023 is also the year of India’s G20 Presidency and the government has been serving millet-based foods at its G20 meetings and conferences to showcase the diverse ways in which millets can be prepared and consumed.

India’s agro and food processing industry is also coming up with innovative ways to integrate millets in the daily food basket, ranging from traditional foods like foxtail millet, pearl millet and sorghum flour to processed foods like ragi (finger millet) biscuits and bread and millet-based beers. Major FMCG companies like Patanjali, ITC and Tata Group as well as small micro-breweries and farms are finding unique ways to innovate with millets. Startups in various maturity stages like Slurrp Farm and Millet Amma established by women entrepreneurs are focused on integrating millets into modern food products such as noodles, dosas and pizza bases to change dietary habits and make millets delicious and interesting.

Consistent across over 500+ millet-based startups and MSMEs is a close collaboration with farmers and a quick turnaround as the millets market is still quite fragmented with many small players rather than conglomerates. IYM presents Indian government with a unique opportunity to boost millets popularity and generate demand, bringing much needed capital into the sector which will allow the startups to scale their operations and promote rural development. IYM is the platform Indian millet market stakeholders can use to promote production and export of Indian millets on an international scale.

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