Shun hybrid varieties, promote traditional millet seeds in India
The emphasis of ICRISAT, IIMR and scientists is on developing high-yielding millet varieties
Abraham Maslow, acknowledged as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, developed a theory of hierarchy of needs to explain what drives human motivation. The law of the instrument was based on a simple explanation: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Simply put, it means if a person is familiar with a certain instrument or approach or even a technological tool, he or she believes it is the only way to address any problem, howsoever peculiar or gigantic, it may be. This inherent bias in thinking is perhaps what is driving agricultural scientists the world over to shift their focus of research to increasing productivity of low-yielding millets. From the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) and to scientists working with other universities and institutes, the emphasis now is on developing high-yielding millet varieties.
Being a trained plant breeder, I think evolving a scientific mechanism to develop high-yielding crop varieties has been an important tool in increasing crop productivity and thereby address the global hunger. In acknowledgement, plant breeder Norman Borlaug was bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize. Known as the father of the Green Revolution, he developed the miracle dwarf seeds of wheat. This was followed by the development of high-yielding varieties of rice, and for other crops, in course of time. But at a time when we produce enough food to feed the world twice over, I don’t see the rationale behind the exuberance being exhibited by plant scientists (and policy makers) towards high-yielding varieties and bio-fortification in millets. I feel that this approach is highly misplaced because the gluten-free millets are not only drought-resistant but are also rich in proteins, micro-nutrient, dietary fibre and anti-oxidants. Already being nutritiously rich, the effort should instead be to supplement diets with millets. Policy makers have to be more imaginative in increasing production of millets than follow the same bias that industrial farming relies on: increasing crop productivity and build surpluses.
It doesn’t mean that just because we have the hammer, we should treat everything else as a nail.
Why I am saying so is because not many people know that developing high-yielding crop varieties and hybrids is inversely proportionate to a fall in nutrients. The higher the crop productivity, the steep is the decline in its nutritive value. That’s the cardinal principle that plant breeding teaches us, which we forget in our quest to go one up. At the risk of reiteration, let me remind that the decline varies from 15 to 40 per cent on an average, with as high as 80 per cent slump in the availability of some minerals like cobalt, as in the case of wheat.
Before you utter ‘so what’, let me explain. The drastic fall in the share of a trace mineral like cobalt in wheat is believed to have resulted in elevated cholesterol levels and therefore the rise in heart diseases.
A study by Kansas University had earlier shown that after World War II there has been a visible decline of six nutrients – proteins, calcium, iron, phosphorous, riboflavin and Ascorbic acid – in crop varieties. The nutrient fall varies between six per cent in proteins and 38 per cent in riboflavin.
This means that the food that we eat is gradually becoming hollow. You can fill your stomach but it remains deprived of building elements that provides strength and bolsters healthy growth.
If that be so, I don’t see the rationale in developing high-yielding varieties of millets that are devoid of essential nutrients that it now boasts of. They have 30 to 300 per cent more nutritional elements than wheat and rice. Breeding higher productivity millets will invariably result in loss of the advantage they are known for.
Already 25 high-yielding and disease-resistant pearl millet hybrids have been developed. Another 35 sorghum hybrids have also been evolved. But it will be interesting to see whether these are equally as nutritious or more to what farmers are presently cultivating.
Take the case of bajra or pearl millet. Efforts to develop bio-fortified bajra hybrids, with iron and zinc, comes from the higher potential of iron and zinc available in the plants, varying from 30-140 mg of iron per kg and 20-90 mg of zinc per kg. But, as an ICRISAT study shows, commercial hybrids have a much lower nutrient content – 42 mg iron per kg of iron and 31 mg per kg of zinc. If more studies were to be undertaken on the nutritional properties of the high-yielding and hybrid varieties of millets, we would get a clearer picture about the drop in nutritional levels. Calling for a more expanded vision to promote millets, journalist Vibha Varshney (Down to Earth, Feb 25, 2023) rightly states: “If hybrids are not as nutritious as the wild varieties, then promoting them as nutri-cereals does not seem right.”
This resonates with what Sheelu Francis, who leads the 100,000 strong Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, said in a recent interview. “A very important danger that we foresee is in fact the direction of research that all agricultural universities are getting involved in with regard to millets.”
She is worried that the hybrid varieties, in particular, will impact traditional millet seeds and would lead to the extinction of these heirloom varieties. Along with the Deccan Development Society (DDS), TNWC has been the driving force behind the establishment of Millets Network of India (MILI), which spearheaded the movement to revive the ancient grain.
Raising millets production should be attempted on the lines that MILI has been asking for. This could be achieved by specially developing watershed on millet lands and by providing a higher price to farmers based on economic valuation of the immense ecosystem services that millets provide. Considering that energy requirement from chemical fertilisers, pesticides, water and power is near zero, plus the huge health and environmental advantages, an appropriate MSP that incorporates the cost the nation pays by way of health and environmental costs, should be announced.
Agricultural research should be dovetailed into what millets require to be the food of the future without trampling on its inherent strengths. This includes research on storage and processing. But we certainly don’t want millets to become a hollow food. Let millets remain the millets that we all have known.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)