A move to millets will have huge health benefits

Published on Nov 16, 2022 10:54 AM IST

The article has been authored by Neelam Patel, senior adviser and Saloni Bhutani, young professional, agriculture & allied sectors vertical, NITI Aayog.

Environmentalists worry that the increased target for ethanol blending could incentivise water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and rice, and suggest that the government should focus on lower-water intensity crops such as millets. (HTPhoto)
Environmentalists worry that the increased target for ethanol blending could incentivise water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and rice, and suggest that the government should focus on lower-water intensity crops such as millets. (HTPhoto)
ByHindustan Times

Indian agriculture, despite multiple challenges over the last 75 years, has continued to be a bright spot for the economy. The sector witnessed its highest growth in crop output during the first 15 years of the planning period owing to a low base effect. It became more organised and the area under cultivation increased drastically, reversing the trend of subsistence farming. India was still struggling with the challenge of food shortage, but the onset of Green Revolution in 1968 in northwest India and the delta region of the south brought in technology, high yielding variety seeds, and advanced irrigation facilities, and put the sector on a better growth trajectory. It made India not only food secure, but also a food surplus country, as a result of which we started to export agricultural commodities. At present, India is a leading producer of cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, sugarcane, fish, milk, poultry and cotton in the world. Our exports of agricultural and allied products in FY 22 grew by 19.92% to $ 50.21 billion, which is by far the highest.

The Green Revolution established the dominance and superiority of rice and wheat and led to decline in area under millets and pulses. It helped us achieve the goal of food security, but reduced dietary diversity within food grains. The National Food Security Mission (NFSM) and Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI) raised the growth of fine cereals and pulses post 2004-05, however nutri-cereals decelerated throughout and even reached a negative zone (see Table 1).

Table 1

Growth Rate in Output of Different Groups of Crops and Other Agricultural Products (In %)

Sub-Sector1950-51 to
1964-65
1967-68 to
1990-91
1990-91 to
2004-05
2004-05 to
2020-21
All Crops2.812.632.292.65
Rice+Wheat+Maize4.283.361.382.37
Jowar+Bajra+Ragi+Small Millets2.380.86-1.62-1.94
Pulses1.680.980.24.04
Oilseeds3.032.870.471.34
Fruits & Vegetables1.733.464.74.84
Milk Group1.215.023.965.09
Egg3.426.764.115.38
Meat1.624.033.377.18
Fish4.773.654.356.74

Source: MoA&FW and MoSPI

Since Independence, our production of horticulture crops has increased 11.2 times (see Figure 1). Production in the livestock sector has also increased in large multiples, driven by demand side factors like rising per capita incomes and the consequent change in consumption patterns.

Figure 1

Growth in Agricultural Production Since 1950-51 (Number of Times)

Source: MoA&FW and MoSPI
Source: MoA&FW and MoSPI

While the per capita cereal production has increased, our intake of cereals has not increased. Fast changes in demand patterns have led to dietary divide and our food composition has changed. We have become more inclined towards foods that are more “elite”- organic/natural/exotic, and have moved away from nutri-cereals due to a perception of it being “coarse” and “inferior”. Increased consumption of edible oil, fruits and vegetables, milk, meat and fish has also contributed to the stagnancy in our cereal intake. We are consuming more processed foods and foods dense in fat, oil and sugar content. Over the last nine years alone, per capita consumption of sugar 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 the consumption is not in terms of staple chapatis, and is more through junk foods like samosa and pizza. Quality, safe, healthy and nutritious food seems to be disappearing from our everyday thalis. Other concerns include unequal intake of food and culture of fad diets. Some people are taking too much of a single food item/component- protein/meat/eggs/dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and many people are taking too little of these nutrients. Overall, our intake of carbohydrates is almost the same, and we are not able to increase intake of many important micro and macro nutrients like proteins, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, dietary fibre, iron, magnesium, calcium, essential fatty acids and amino acids. This is a matter of great concern and has significant health implications.

Growth in the agriculture sector has not translated into positive health outcomes. Health and lifestyle diseases are on a rise in India. Deprivation and obesity are co-existing. While lifestyle disorders are more prevalent in urban areas (owing to factors such as intake of fatty/oily/sugary/processed food, fad diets and lack of physical exercise), poor health status/malnutrition/undernourishment (owing to low intake of food/deprivation/hunger and poor health status of mothers) are more prevalent in rural areas. For example, obesity in urban areas (33%) is higher as compared to rural areas (20%), whereas stunting amongst children is higher in rural areas (37%) than urban areas (30%).

Figure 2 (a)

Health Status of India (Adults) (In %)

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

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

Figure 2 (b)

Health Status of India (Children) (In %)

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

Millets, a power house of nutrition, have the potential to resolve all nutrition-related challenges in India, provided they are consumed in unpolished form. They comprise of diverse nutrients, phyto-nutrients and anti-nutrients. They have higher levels of protein (in comparison to rice), are rich in essential fatty acids, micro-nutrients, minerals, dietary fiber, have lower carbohydrates. Each millet scores over the other millet in some or the other nutrient (see Table 2). The inclusion of unpolished millets in our daily diets will positively impact our energy levels and render multiple health benefits like improved metabolism, haemoglobin levels, diabetes, brain functioning, vision and foetal brain development.

Table 2

Cereals Vs Millets: Nutrient Composition of Millet and Cereals (Per 100g of Edible Portion)

ParameterProtein(g)Fat(g)Minerals(g)Total Dietery Fiber(g)Insoluble Dietery Fiber (g)Soluble Dietery Fiber (g)CHO(g)
Rice Milled7.940.520.522.811.990.8278.2
Whole Wheat10.61.51.411.2=9.6=1.6=64.0
Finger7.21.9211.2=9.5=1.7=66.8
Proso12.51.11.9---70.4
Foxtail12.34.33.3   60.9
Little10.43.91.37.75.52.365.6
Kodo8.92.61.76.44.32.166.2
Barnyard6.24.42.2 --65.5
Peart115.41.411.5=9.12.361.8
Sorghum101.71.410.28.51.7=67.7

No clue whether polished or unpolished

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

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

The article has been authored by Neelam Patel, senior adviser and Saloni Bhutani, young professional, agriculture & allied sectors vertical, NITI Aayog.

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