Solving malnutrition problem, benefitting farmers

Of late, I’ve gone retro in my choice of cereal, preferring sorghum and a variety of millets over wheat and rice, staples I’ve grown up eating. In the 1960s, the average annual per capita consumption of sorghum and millets was 32.9 kg, roughly eight times the 4.2 kg an urban Indian consumed in 2010.

So-called “inferior” sorghum (jawar) and millets—pearl (bajra), finger (ragi), little (kutki), kodo (kodon), foxtail (kakum), and barnyard (sanwa)—have lost plate share, mainly to “superior” wheat, a dietary shift associated with growing incomes and urbanisation, said a 2014 National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) report.

In 2010, an urban Indian consumed 52 kg of wheat, almost twice the 27-kg annual consumption of the mid-1960s. As a result, since 1956, the area under millets shrunk: 23 percent for pearl millet, 49 percent for finger millet, 64 percent for sorghum and 85 percent for small (or minor) millets.

If this area dwindles further, India stands to lose
A crop that is native to the sub-continent, according to a new study detailing the origins of food crops, offering a sustainable livelihood.

An opportunity to address India’s continuing malnutrition problem. India loses about one million children under the age of five from malnutrition-related causes every year, IndiaSpend reported in June 2015. Anaemia among women is static at 48.1 percent in India, one of the world’s worst-off (170th out of 185) nations, we reported in July 2016.

A chance to ensure food security in the eventuality of climate change-triggered drought, a likely scenario, IndiaSpend reported in December 2015. In the worst-case scenario for 2030, the number of people exposed to droughts worldwide could increase nine percent to 17 percent over a no-climate change scenario. 

Since millets and sorghum require less water than other crops -- pearl and finger millet can make do with 28 percent of paddy’s rainfall needs -- they are better adapted for current and future droughts.
If this trend can be reversed, a diverse range of problems related to malnutrition, farming and water use could be addressed.

Nutritionally, millets are richer than wheat, rice
More Indians should eat sorghum and millets, if the country’s continuing malnutrition challenge is to be addressed:

  Barnyard millet has 531 percent the iron in wheat, 1,033 percent that in rice. Pearl millet has 314 percent the iron in wheat, 611 percent that in rice. Little millet has 265 percent the iron in wheat, 516 percent that in rice.

  Finger millet has 839 percent the calcium content of wheat and 3,440 percent that of rice. Pearl millet and wheat are comparable in calcium content, both of which have four times the calcium density of rice.

  Barnyard millet has 313 percent the mineral content of wheat, 783 percent that of rice; foxtail millet has 220 percent the mineral content of wheat, 550 percent that of rice.

  Proso, foxtail, pearl, and barnyard millets compare with wheat in protein content. Sorghum and all millets are richer sources of protein than rice.

 Girls fed a diet composed of sorghum (60 percent) and rice (40 percent) recorded a high growth rate than those fed just rice, according to this 2015 study by the Indian Institute of Millets Research and the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

 “Both boys and girls fed the mixed diet over eight months showed better haemoglobin, albumin, ferritin, and iron levels,” said Benhur Dayakar Rao, principal scientist, Indian Institute of Millets Research, study co-author, and an advocate of dietary diversification based on traditional food systems to address malnutrition and India’s diabetes epidemic.

 “Innovative preparations” of sorghum, such as upma, flakes, pasta, and biscuits, had 5 percent to 35 percent lower glycemic index than wheat in another study, which showed they help decrease postprandial blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of diabetes, said Rao.

 The challenge is getting Indians, especially urban Indians, to revert to millets when the government has been promoting the consumption of wheat and rice for decades, especially as subsidised food for the poor through the public distribution system (PDS). 

“Prior to the enactment of the National Food Security Bill in 2013, the government had included only wheat and rice in the PDS, which helped lower the consumption of coarse grains,” said Muniappan Karthikeyan, program leader with the DHAN Foundation, an NGO.

In 2014, IndiaSpend reported how the National Food Security Mission had been extended to include coarse grains, such as millets, at Rs 1 per kg through the PDS.

 PDSs that use micronutrient-rich foods are more nutritious than ones that do not, IndiaSpend reported in July 2016.      

(In an arrangement with, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Charu Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. The views expressed are strictly those of IndiaSpend.)

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