Small grains make it big

Last Updated 09 January 2017, 18:34 IST
Abhishek Naik, an MTech graduate in Biotechnology, has a new-found interest — growing barnyard millet. A senior scientist at a premier biopharmaceutical company in Bengaluru, Abhishek has convinced his father to grow this millet variety, a rarity in the State, in his ancestral farm in Belagavi district.

A few months ago, an elated octogenarian contacted Kallappa P Neginhal in Bailahongal taluk with a request for a unique variety of sorghum she thought was lost many years ago. Such calls have become common for Kallappa after he started conserving sorghum varieties in 2004. All the 25 varieties in his collection may not be economically viable, but each of them has helped him develop new contacts and friendships.

For Praveen, a young farmer in Savadatti taluk who has conserved 13 varieties of foxtail millet, growing millets in an eco-friendly way also means addressing the imminent challenges of weather uncertainty, water scarcity and health problems. Dr Manohar Upadhya, a veterinary surgeon and food enthusiast in Mangaluru, has been experimenting with different combinations to make millet-based food nutritious and tasty as well. These instances provide evidence that after their reintroduction to the fields over a decade ago, millets have caught the imagination of people from various sections of society.

Back in focus
The reason for the sudden rise of millets can be attributed to their emergence as answers to the challenges posed by climate change, soil degradation, water scarcity, and, above all, lifestyle-related health problems. About two decades ago, when farming was at crossroads, with the farmers trying to come out of the vicious sphere of heavy chemicals, high yield and more money, a few civil society organisations in Karnataka initiated efforts to revive the forgotten subsistence crops to sustain farming, specifically in arid land. While the initiative gave new hopes to farmers, the breakthrough came when millets became popular as nutri grains that offer good health.

Farmers realised that millets have answers to many of their problems, and started refreshing their memories of traditional varieties. The organic movement that had  become popular in the State boosted the millet campaign. Interestingly, many youngsters from different backgrounds joined hands to secure and conserve heritage varieties. As a result, now we can see  eco-friendly farmers, food enthusiasts and social entrepreneurs joining hands for a common cause — bringing millets back to the mainstream.

“In the last five years, the demand for millets has increased exponentially in the State. In 2011, it was difficult to sell one tonne of millets in a month, but now, the sale crosses 25 tonnes every month,” says Somesh B, chief executive officer of Sahaja Organics, one of the leading millet dealers in the State.

The last decade saw a series of workshops and millet melas to create awareness about the significance of these little grains as a crop and food ingredient. Accordingly, the cultivation area and the number of farmers engaged in millet farming has increased. With nutritionists and health experts joining the campaign, the demand has skyrocketed in the past one year. “We are struggling to balance demand and supply. This year, we could source only 50% of the required quantity from Karnataka farmers,” says Somesh, mentioning that about seven states in the country are into millet cultivation.

While the demand has increased, the lack of proper processing facilities has posed a challenge to both farmers and dealers. All millet varieties except finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum face processing problems. Since the grains are small, they can’t be processed in regular mills.“This discourages us from venturing into large-scale production of millets,” says Kallappa.

When it comes to processing and consumption, there have been many views and experiments. Earlier, the grains were procured by dealers of other states, particularly from Nashik, Maharashtra, and now dealers like Sahaja Organics are buying unprocessed grains from farmers. Interestingly, some farmers are selling their produce at their farm gate.

But still, farmers strongly feel a need for local units. “So far, setting up processing units was not economically viable in the State. With the current trend, we will soon have processing machines,” says Somesh. While Sahaja Organics is handling the marketing mechanics, its sister concern Sahaja Samrudha is facilitating better cultivation practices among farmers. With the presence of a stable market, millets are now grown in districts, like Mandya, that are not traditional millet-growing areas as well.

So far, there have been no concerted efforts to develop community-level processing units, and standardisation of machines will take time. “Though we have processing machines, they are not efficient. Again, due to their different sizes and textures, each millet crop requires a different facility. Now we are working on a machine that can process all varieties of millets,” says Dr Vilas Tonapi, director, Indian Institute of Millet Research, Hyderabad.

“When it comes to value addition, we have come a long way in the last 10 years. In sorghum, we have identified varieties that are suitable for different types of products like semolina,” he adds. The institute in association with other agencies also trains entrepreneurs and farmers in this regard and conducts awareness programmes. Peter of AID India, who is part of a team working on developing millet processing technology, feels that little progress has been achieved in the development of small-scale millet processing machines. The technologies that have been developed are still in the testing phase and some field trials are now underway. 

Health aspects
Millets are a good source of dietary fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, and are gluten-free. They are much suited for people with lifestyle-related health problems as they have a low glycaemic index value, are high in antioxidants, and they help lower cholesterol levels. While both polished and unpolished grains are available in the market, there are different opinions about their nutritive value.

Some experts say that it is better to consume polished grains for the smooth transition from rice-and-wheat-based food to millet-based food. Somesh narrates, “There are instances of health upsets after the consumption of unpolished grains, particularly with kodo millet, due to lack of proper storage. There is no such problem with polished grains.” But others feel that grains lose their nutritive value when polished. Dwijendra Nath Guru, a technical consultant in millet processing, feels that polished millets lose 70% of their nutritive value. 

Nutritionist K C Raghu says, “Millets  in any form have high nutritive value than rice or wheat. But it is always better to consume unpolished grain.” People like Dr Manohar Upadhya, who have experimented with the consumption of grains, feel that sprouted millets retain all the nutritional value, and even enhance it, and are easily digestible. Of late, there has been focussed efforts from both institutions and entrepreneurs  to set up processing units. The State government has also been proactive in addressing the various challenges in the sector, and the funding agencies are keen to offer assistance as well. The main challenge now is to ensure that efforts are properly channelised so that both growers and consumers reap the benefits.With people becoming more health-conscious, and farmers eco-friendly, there is no doubt that time has come to celebrate these wonder grains.
(Published 09 January 2017, 16:31 IST)

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