Switching to millets will have huge health benefits


Indian agriculture, despite multiple challenges over the past 75 years, has continued to be a bright spot for the economy. The sector experienced its strongest crop production growth in the first 15 years of the planning period due to a weak base effect. It became organized and cultivated areas increased considerably, reversing the trend of subsistence agriculture. India was still grappling with the challenge of food scarcity, but the onset of the green revolution in 1968 in northwest India and the southern delta region brought technology, from seed varieties to high yield and advanced irrigation facilities, and put the sector on a better path. growth trajectory. This made India not only food secure but also a food surplus country as a result of which we started exporting agricultural products. At present, India is one of the major producers of grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, sugar cane, fish, milk, poultry and cotton in the world. Our exports of agricultural and related products in FY22 increased by 19.92% to reach $50.21 billion, which is by far the highest.

The Green Revolution established the dominance and superiority of rice and wheat and led to a decrease in the areas devoted to millet and pulses. This helped us achieve the food security goal, but reduced dietary diversity in food grains. The National Food Security Mission (NFSM) and Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI) increased the growth of fine grains and pulses after 2004-05, but nutri-grains slowed down and even reached a negative zone (see table 1).

Table 1

Growth rate of production of different groups of crops and other agricultural products (in %)

Subsector 1950-51 to
1967-68 to
1990-91 to
2004-05 at
All crops 2.81 2.63 2.29 2.65
Rice + Wheat + Corn 4.28 3.36 1.38 2.37
Jowar+Bajra+Ragi+Small Millets 2.38 0.86 -1.62 -1.94
Legumes 1.68 0.98 0.2 4.04
Oilseeds 3.03 2.87 0.47 1.34
Fruits and vegetables 1.73 3.46 4.7 4.84
Milk Group 1.21 5.02 3.96 5.09
Egg 3.42 6.76 4.11 5.38
Meat 1.62 4.03 3.37 7.18
Fish 4.77 3.65 4.35 6.74

Source: MoA&FW and MoSPI

Since independence, our production of horticultural crops has increased 11.2 times (see figure 1). Production in the livestock sector has also increased exponentially, driven by demand-side factors such as rising per capita incomes and the resulting change in consumption patterns.

Figure 1

Growth in agricultural production since 1950-51 (number of times)

Source: MoA&FW and MoSPI

While per capita grain production has increased, our grain consumption has not. Rapidly changing demand patterns have led to a food divide and our food composition has changed. We have become more inclined to favor more ‘elite’ foods – organic/natural/exotic, and have moved away from nutri-cereals due to a perception that they are ‘gross’ and ‘inferior’. The increase in the consumption of edible oils, fruits and vegetables, milk, meat and fish has also contributed to the stagnation of our consumption of cereals. We eat more processed foods and foods high in fat, oil and sugar. In the past nine years alone, per capita sugar consumption has increased by 0.5 kg, from 18.7 kg in 2011-12 to 19.2 kg in 2020-21. Rice and wheat still dominate our consumption basket, but consumption is not in terms of staple foods. chapatis, and more through junk food like samosa and pizza. Quality, safe, healthy and nutritious food seems to be disappearing from our daily thalis. Other concerns include unequal food consumption and the culture of fad diets. Some people consume too much of a single food/component – protein/meat/eggs/dairy, fruits and vegetables, and many people consume too little of these nutrients. Overall our carbohydrate intake is almost the same and we are unable to increase intake of many important micro and macro nutrients like protein, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, calcium, essential fatty acids. and amino acids. It is a matter of great concern and has important health implications.

The growth of the agricultural sector has not translated into positive health outcomes. Health and lifestyle related diseases are on the increase in India. Deprivation and obesity coexist. While lifestyle disorders are more common in urban areas (due to factors such as consumption of fatty/oily/sugary/processed foods, fad diets and lack of physical exercise), the poor health/malnutrition/undernourishment (due to low food intake/deprivation/hunger and poor maternal health) are more prevalent in rural areas. For example, obesity in urban areas (33%) is higher than in rural areas (20%), while stunting in children is higher in rural areas (37%) than in rural areas. urban areas (30%).

Figure 2 (a)

India’s health status (adults) (%)

Source: 1) National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), 2019-21

2) NFHS Policy Tracker for Districts – Geographic Insights, Harvard University

Figure 2(b)

India’s Health Status (Children) (%)

Source: 1) National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), 2019-21 2) NFHS Policy Tracker for Districts – Geographic Insights, Harvard University

Millets, a powerhouse of nutrition, have the potential to solve all nutrition related problems in India, provided they are consumed in an unrefined form. They include various nutrients, phyto-nutrients and anti-nutrients. They have higher levels of protein (compared to rice), are rich in essential fatty acids, micronutrients, minerals, dietary fiber, have less carbohydrates. Each millet scores higher than the other millet for either nutrient (see Table 2). Inclusion of unpolished millets in our daily diet will positively impact our energy levels and provide multiple health benefits like improved metabolism, hemoglobin levels, diabetes, brain function, vision and fetal brain development.

Table 2

Cereals Vs Millets: Nutritional composition of millet and cereals (per 100 g of edible portion)

Setting Protein(g) Fat(g) Minerals(g) Total dietary fiber(g) Insoluble dietary fiber (g) Soluble dietary fiber (g) CHO(g)
milled rice 7.94 0.52 0.52 2.81 1.99 0.82 78.2
Whole wheat 10.6 1.5 1.4 11.2= 9.6= 1.6= 64.0
Finger 7.2 1.9 2 11.2= 9.5= 1.7= 66.8
Proso 12.5 1.1 1.9 70.4
Foxtail 12.3 4.3 3.3 60.9
Little 10.4 3.9 1.3 7.7 5.5 2.3 65.6
kodo 8.9 2.6 1.7 6.4 4.3 2.1 66.2
barnyard 6.2 4.4 2.2 65.5
Pear 11 5.4 1.4 11.5= 9.1 2.3 61.8
Sorghum ten 1.7 1.4 10.2 8.5 1.7= 67.7

No idea if polished or unpolished

Source: Indian Food Composition Tables (IFCT) 2017, Nutritional Value of Indian Foods, 2009

We should consider gradually moving away from our usual polished rice/wheat diet to an unpolished millet diet.

The article was written by Neelam Patel, Senior Advisor and Saloni Bhutani, Young Professional, Agriculture and Related Verticals, NITI Aayog.

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Richard V. Johnson