A focus on hybrids and select millet varieties limits the benefits that these supergrains can provide
The good thing about millets is that research on them was supported even during the Green Revolution when wheat was the centre of attention. However, decades of uninspired research could now put a dampener on the efforts to promote these supergrains.
In the 1960s, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research tasked researchers across India to find and develop improved varieties of millets under a central project. Before this, millet research was part of the Project on Intensified Research on Cotton, Oilseeds and Millets established in 1958.
An All India Coordinated Millet Improvement Project was established in 1965. In 1969, an All India Coordinated Research Project (AICRP) on Sorghum was put in place for conducting research on grain and forage sorghum. Then, in 1985, the All India Coordinated Pearl Millet Improvement Project was established. Finally, the All India Coordinated Research Project on Small Millets was started in 1986.
After a lot of shunting from one place to another, the final headquarters of these projects are Jodhpur for pearl millet; Hyderabad for sorghum and Bengaluru for small millets.
A total of nine millets are now being researched under the guidance of Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR) in Hyderabad. These include large-grained millets like jowar and bajra and small grained millets like ragi, kangni, kutki, sama, kodo, proso and browntop millet.
There are problems with the way research has been approached.
For one, very little research has been done. Through the years, researchers have looked for high yielding and disease-resistant varieties of millets and also tried to figure out alternate uses for these grains.
In the case of sorghum, a total of 35 hybrids have been developed over a period of 60 years.
For pearl millet, a total of 25 high-yielding and disease-resistant hybrids have been developed. More than 1,000 samples have been screened against diseases such as downy mildew, blast, rust and insect pests such as stem borer, white grubs, etc.
Twenty-two varieties were released by 2012 as part of the All India Coordinated Research Project on Small Millets.
The question that seems to have been missed to a great extent is whether these hybrids and varieties are as nutritious as the original millets.
There is evidence of unrealised potential. For example, pearl millet has a large genetic variability (30-140 milligram of iron per kilogram and 20-90 mg of zinc per kg) available.
A study carried out by researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) says that commercial hybrids generally have 42 mg per kg iron and 31 mg per kg zinc content.
Analysis of some of the selected open pollinated hybrids of pearl millet developed in India showed that these have iron levels between 70 and 75 mg per kg and zinc levels between 35 and 40 mg per kg — less than what could have been aimed for.
If hybrids are not as nutritious as the wild varieties, then promoting them as nutri-cereals does not seem right.
The second question one needs to ask is why such little work has been done on millets. The grass family or Poaceae, to which millets belong, has around 780 genera and around 12,000 species.
Nine millets come under the IIMR’s mandate but many more types of millets are in use in the country by local communities. For example, Laheri Bai of Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh has seeds of sikiya in her collection.
Laheri Bai has preserved more than 150 local varieties of millet seeds and for this, she has been named as the brand ambassador of millets.
Under the All India Coordinated Research Project on Small Millets, germplasm from 15,861 samples of small millets are being maintained. But these are only the ones under IIMR’s mandate. It would help if researchers identified these underutilised millets too.
Overall, a more expanded vision is needed to promote millets. There is an opportunity to do much more during the International Year of Millets.
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