No quinoa for me, thanks!

Why ship grains halfway across the world, when India is the largest producer of the nutritious eco-friendly wondergrain, millets?


Walk into any fancy restaurant these days, and chefs and waiters will tell you proudly that they can serve you quinoa – an exotic and apparently quite fashionable pseudo-grain grown in the Andean region of South America. It is also being sold at a premium in some organic food boutiques here in India.

Sometime last year, a journalist friend gave me a call and asked for some input on an article about the healthy, gluten-free quinoa. In reply, I gave her a fifteen-minute rant about how utterly unnecessary and irresponsible it is to ship food grains halfway around the globe, when we have such a great choice of native ones right here in India!

India is the top millet producing country in the world. Pic: Dinesh Valke, Flickr

India is the top millet producing country in the world. Pic: Dinesh Valke, Flickr

Nutritionally, millets and amaranth are a perfect match for quinoa, and they avoid the huge ecological footprint involved in importing grains.

A newspaper article by a Mumbai-based nutritionist recently celebrated the pseudo-grain amaranth as “India’s Superstar Grain”. She bemoans the fad for imported quinoa and strikes a blow for local grains. Why is it not equally fashionable to eat amaranth and local millet varieties – India’s native miracle grains? These foodgrains comprise a rich variety, ranging from the more commonly known ragi and jowar to less common varieties such as barnyard millet, kodo millet, proso millet or little millet.

While quinoa is a recent urban fad, Indian diets have been changing gradually for decades.

From a staple food and integral part of local food cultures, millets have come to be looked down upon by modern urban consumers as “coarse grains” – something that their village ancestors may have lived on, but that they had left behind and exchanged for a more “refined” diet.

Unfortunately, the word refined is to be taken quite literally here: Urban diets increasingly consist of refined grains, sugar and oil, and are lacking in fibre and essential nutrients. The health consequences are devastating and include obesity, diabetes, digestive disorders and cancer.

When seeing nicely packaged ragi biscuits in the health section of supermarkets, one could almost get the impression that millets are indeed becoming fashionable again. However, the statistics speak a different language: Changes in consumption trends over the past decades, coupled with state policies that favour rice and wheat, have led to a sharp decline in millet production and consumption.

In the 1950s, the area under millet cultivation in India exceeded the area cultivated under either rice or wheat, and millets made up 40% of all cultivated grains. However, in the early 1970s, rice overtook millets, and in the early 1990s so did wheat. Since the Green Revolution, the production of rice and wheat was boosted by 125% and 285% respectively, and the production of millets declined by -2.4%.

Although India is still the top millet producing country in the world, by 2006, the millet growing area was only half that of rice, and one fifth less than wheat. The share of millets in total grain production had dropped from 40% to 20%. This has dire agricultural, environmental and nutritional consequences.

Not just urban food preferences, state policies also play a major role in the shift of consumption habits. For instance, the Public Distribution System has promoted rice and wheat uniformly across India, completely disregarding local climatic conditions, agricultural traditions and food cultures. Polished rice became the cheapest and most readily available foodgrain, and as a consequence the most popular one. The change in preferences was aggravated by notions of cleanliness, purity and sophistication of refined grains versus the more down-to-earth “coarse” grains.

Millets contain a high amount of fibre, which earned them the derogatory name “coarse grains” and often degrades them to animal feed. However, in a time where urban consumers tend to go overboard on refined products, the extra fibre in millets might just be a great boon. Fibre is essential not just for good digestion and a healthy bowel; it also has a positive impact on blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Furthermore, millets are richer in several nutrients than rice, wheat or corn. For instance, they are rich in B-vitamins such as niacin, B6 and folic acid, as well as calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc and beta carotene. Each millet variety has a different nutritional profile. The table below compares several millets, wheat and rice with regard to selected essential nutrients. Millets are also ideal for people suffering from gluten-intolerance.

Source: Millet Network of India, Deccan Development Society and FIAN, India: Millets – Future of Food and Farming

Millets are truly miraculous grains in terms of their nutritional value, and even more so in terms of their humble requirements as agricultural crops. They are ideal for rainfed farming systems – the majority of India’s small and marginal farms. The rainfall requirement of millets is only 30% of that of rice. While it takes an average 4,000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of rice, millets grow without any irrigation. Millets can withstand droughts, and they grow well in poor soils, some of them even in acidic, saline or sandy soils. Traditional millet farming systems are inherently biodiverse and include other important staples such as pulses and oilseeds. They are usually grown organically, as millets do not require chemical pesticides and fertilizer.

Organizations that promote millet cultivation and consumption for security of food, nutrition, fodder, fibre, health, livelihoods and ecology across India are joined in the Millet Network of India (MINI), an alliance of over farmer organizations, scientists, civil society groups and individuals.

Millets are richer in several nutrients than rice, wheat or corn. Pic: Flickr, Creative Commons

Millets are richer in several nutrients than rice, wheat or corn. Pic : Flickr, Creative Commons

Millets are available in organic stores, from organic online retailers, in supermarkets and various other shops. They can easily be integrated into any kind of diet.

Here’s how you can use millets at home:

•Mix millets with other grains or use by themselves like rice
•Make soft and tasty idlis from whole jowar
•Add some millets to your dosa batter
•Enjoy puffed jowar as a snack, breakfast cereal or sprinkled on salads for a nice crunch
•Use foxtail millet rava for a more nutririous upma
•Add millet flours to rotis; for cakes and raised breads, mix them with wheat flour, as millets do not contain gluten


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Educated as a Geographer at University of Freiburg, Germany, Nina worked in a research project in Hyderabad from 2009 till 2014. She has researched the domestic organic market extensively, published two books and works as a consultant on issues of organic food, environment and health. She preferably commutes by bicycle, loves to cook and teaches organic and vegan cooking. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Educated as a Geographer at University of Freiburg, Germany, Nina worked in a research project in Hyderabad from 2009 till 2014. She has researched the domestic organic market extensively, published two books and works as a consultant on issues of organic food, environment and health. She preferably commutes by bicycle, loves to cook and teaches organic and vegan cooking. more

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  • Sundaram Seshadri

    A wonderful article capturing the importance of our own Indian food devoured by most of our forefathers till some 50 years back.

  • aravinda

    Yes indeed! I couldn’t agree more! Millet is the tried and true breakfast … now I call it the breakfast of champions of food security and also sustainable agriculture and sustainable future. Why only breakfast, it makes a great snack or part of any meal! Here is some more on millet:

    Ragi Porridge, not just for Babies: http://askamma.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/ragi-porridge-not-just-for-babies/
    Ragi, A Wonder Grain: http://aidindia.org/main/content/view/459/

  • Usha Srinath

    Ragi (finger millet) is one of the easiest millets to incorporate into our daily diet. It cooks really fast..if cooked in the south Indian style of ragi balls (shooting the flour into boiling water)..or the raw flour can be mixed into a dough with chopped onions, green chillies and anything else according to your imagination…it can be turned into a breakfast roti in under ten minutes..it is a bit of an acquired taste though if you haven’t grown up with it..I have started enjoying it thoroughly now and often substitute it for rice..ragi flour is available in most stores in Bangalore. I even found it in Europe in Sri Lankan stores..have always had my suspicions about quinoa though…it just seemed over priced and faddish…

  • Anna Brijbala

    Did you know that quinoa is now organically, sustainably and ethically growing right here in India, supporting organic india’s vast network of marginal farmers?

    • priya83

      Hello Anna,
      Am looking for quionoa in every grocery shop and so far no luck Can someone tell me where i can buy quinoa in hyderabad please It would be of great help Thanks.

    • Nina Osswald

      Hi Anna, sorry I’m replying to this post a bit late…. I’m just doing some research trying to find out more about quinoa grown in India – if you know more, can you message me on FB please? When writing the article, I spoke only about imported quinoa; would be interesting to find out more about Indian growers!

  • Priya

    Hi,
    I am running an organic retail outlet at Bangalore.We have millets of many varieties.Please do visit .
    Priya Sreedhar
    9620128258

    • Priya

      For Millet recipes,refer my blog:nisargashoppe.blogspot.in

    • Terminator

      Typical Indian. Always advertising everything instead of putting your input and opinion. Are all Indians as self centered and greedy as you are? Ridiculous.

      • NA

        That was a bit harsh and sterotypical..I do agree with what you’re saying regarding this specific post, but please try not to paint an entire population with the same brush. Thank you!

    • Gladson Uchil

      Hi Priya, I want to purchase Saamai(Little Millet) in 5kg pack….how much will it cost me and where can I pick it up from? I am at Basaveshwaranagar, Bangalore.

  • Kiara

    Wow!! Such a wonderful piece of information. Appreciate your work Nina! Thumbs up…

  • Gladson Uchil

    Where can I purchase Little Millet(Saamai) in large packing(5kg+) in Bangalore and what will it cost me?

  • Joseph

    Great Article – thanks for creating the Awareness!! . These millets used to be a staple diet in Rayalaseema area of Andhra Pradesh, but the culture has been swapped for Rice and Maida ..Sad.