By Martine Dugué, Terra Millet Association
Article published in 2013 in the french magazine “Nature et Progrès”.
Due to global warming, water issues in agriculture will increase. While the whole world is faced with this problem, it is in India that I discovered the drought resistant ability of a cereal that has been unjustly marginalised, whose cultivation was abandoned in Europe, India and Africa - the millet. There is no time to lose in changing the way the world looks at this plant; this is the objective of Terra Millet, which aims to promote this plant to all concerned.
From my first visit to India two years ago, I remember, of course, the famous chapattis (wheat patties) and the innumerable dishes made from rice, dhal (lentils) and other hot spices. But my palate did not care on that day of January 2008. In a remote village in the state of Karnataka, I sat before my plate, scrutinising the weird dough ball in it, while I had my first ever mouthful. What may that be? Though I liked it, it was not so much the new taste that retained my attention, but this feeling, this “root food” sentiment that came over me, raw, wild, natural, essential, vital... From that day, rice dishes held no interest for me. I asked my lovely farmer for these tasty balls as often as possible, and then for each meal. My reputation preceded me. And when Mr. Jayaram HR, the owner of the farm where I stayed as wwoofer(1), introduced me to his environmentalist friends from Bangalore, I was “the foreigner who wants to eat nothing but ragi balls,” which soon led to my nickname, “ragi girl”.
It could have stopped there if it had not been for a stay with Narayanna Reddy, a respected environmental activist and farmer. He told me that the water level in India was dropping dramatically. A few days later, in the middle of the dry season, I was surprised to see a rice field abundantly irrigated by water pumped from a water body. Narayanna explained “Here, rice and sugar are the crops that are most water-thirsty”. I was shocked and felt like someone had hit me in the guts: I would have never thought that eating rice and sugarcane - even grown organically - could have such consequences. “But you know, there are alternatives to these crops. Millets are one of them. The ragi that you love so much is a millet; they can grow on barren lands, with little fertilizer and water.” This was how I learnt that my favourite dish could also be of such great environmental interest...
Some agricultural policies endanger water reserves. This is the case in India, but we can say the same of Africa, the West, or even any country. In India, with the progressive introduction of irrigation since the 1980s, rice and sugarcane fields have been favoured to the detriment of traditional crops. Farmers pounced on these crops that are of great monetary value but are highly water-consuming. They started to inconsiderately pump water from underground sources or rivers and streams. Narayanna(2) had doom in his voice when he said, “Where I live, we used to find water at 6 metres [underground], now it has fallen to 250 metres. Unimaginable, right? In the past, rice and sugarcane cultivation used to be limited to river banks, or rainwater was enough. Now, everybody wants to produce and get this financial manna!” India is by far the largest global consumer of non-renewable sources like groundwater(3), and this is big danger.
During my visits to different places in the South of India, I often asked farmers, “Do you know what is happening?”, “Yes, but these crops give us profit”, they answered. There are many villages in which the next generation cannot live because access to potable water is already difficult there. “We are afraid. Everybody is digging wells. But what can we do? We will have to leave our villages!” All that even then millets can grow in dry lands, don’t need much fertiliser or water, and have an amazing capacity to thrive even in drought…
I meet people who promote millets, like Sateesh, head of Millet Network of India (MINI), who says, “If global temperatures keep rising by 2% annually, then there will no longer be any wheat in India because it is a crop that is highly heat-sensitive. But we depend on it for our food security; it represents nearly 40% of our consumption!”
Professor Krhisne Gowda has worked for 40 years on millets in the University of Bangalore. He says, “Farmers know something is not right in the rainfall distribution. In the 50s and 60s, there was a fixed pattern to rains. Since the last 2-3 years, this pattern has changed. Wheat and rice will be less profitable; so, to meet food demands, the alternative is millet.”
Between his other activities, my host Jayaram, with his foundation The Green Path (4), tries to raise awareness among his citizens about the high nutritive and environmental value of millets. Demonstrations on this subject are organised regularly, and even if it is picking up (5), most of the population is not interested at all. I discovered several profound and cultural reasons: millets have been the staple food of people for centuries, but today it is seen as the food of the suburbs, the villages, people at the bottom, the masses. As they are consumed by disadvantaged groups, they are called “secondary cereals” or the “crops of the poor”. Millet producers are marginalised and hence disadvantaged.
Whether it be in India or in Africa, traditional food has been overtaken by more and more refined food. The “Green Revolution” destroyed regional food security that was based on diversified cereals and mostly replaced it with wheat and rice, which are extremely refined. Today, India ranks low on the global malnutrition index: 94th out of 118 countries, right behind Pakistan and China (6).
On the contrary, millets are not refined. They enable farmers to be more autonomous and resilient in the face of food crises. The ease of cooking rice, though not the primary reason, makes people opt for it over millets. New ways of cooking millets must be developed without any delay.
Due to their colonial past, some African countries adopted baguettes, made from imported wheat, which puts these countries in a delicate position in the global market. Being refined, the baguette does not meet basic needs. But even in Africa, millets are not preferred, and millet producers struggle to get their produce to market.
By globally popularizing millets, it is possible to modernise their image and contribute to the work of activists in India and Africa. In terms of Indians’ reaction to my “Western” interest, I was quick to understand that if the West started cultivating and consuming millets, it could participate in changes in Indians’ perception of their own heritage. They could take pride in their heritage for their next generation and for all to see.
Back to France, I was moved when I learnt that my grandfather used to cultivate millets in his farm near the Vendée border (France). I was shocked to see how an entire tradition was vanishing. There’s no more millet field in our landscape. We should return this cereal to the place it held, which it should never have lost, and revive our traditional seeds.
1/wwoofing: For adept ecological travellers, wwoofing consists of working in exchange for boarding and food in biological farms all over the world.
2/Narayanna Reddy was interviewed by Coline Serreau in her documentary “Solutions locales pour désordre global” (Local solutions for global issues), a great success in France.
3/International Food Policy Research Institute.
5/ Since this article has been published in 2013, Mr Jayaram’s work is taking a nice shape and more and more audience, with the participation of Agricultural Dept, Govt of Karnataka. See their facebook page.
6/International Food Policy Research Institute.
Terra Millet is working on developing the millet network in France, linked to other countries.
See our documentary online, “Millet on my Platter”
thanks to Nivetha Velupur for her help on the transaltion from french to english