Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture

Editorial – Millet farming systems

We do get disturbed with climate change, depleting resources, increasing hunger and malnutrition, eroding farm productivity and incomes, rural urban inequities. Climate change is not an absolutely new phenomenon. Malnutrition has been existing and is increasing owing to changing farming systems, food access and habits. Monocultures and commodity based ‘business’ farming approaches, focusing farming for income alone,  is making farming a risky and uncertain proposition, especially for small farmers, under changing climate conditions.

We always get excited about complex, expensive solutions.  We constantly try fitting solutions into the existing frameworks and templates. We refuse to dig deep into our own intrinsic human capacities, contextual opportunities in terms of biodiversity,   which offer simple solutions.  Often, these simple solutions are available, time tested and deeply entwined into our cultures. We brush them off.  What we need to do is, revive them and support them.

This issue highlights one such ‘solution’ – millet based farming systems. By supporting them, we would indeed contribute to better living conditions for farming communities and promote healthy habits among people.  We know that millet crops are resilient, demand less inputs, can survive in unfavourable weather conditions and are highly nutritious.

Traditionally, the communities were cultivating these crops for food and feed, till they were systematically marginalised by few high resource intensive crops – paddy and wheat. These irrigated crops were in response to a serious food crisis. They are nurtured by a robust supportive environment – research offering hybrid seeds, subsidised chemical inputs in the form of fertilisers and pesticides; the State led mechanisms like Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Public Distribution System (PDS).  Though each of these measures were  path breaking and need based, they further hastened the displacement and disappearance of traditional mixed farming systems which offered multiple benefits in terms of nutritious food, feed as well as steady income.

Shift towards millets

There is a welcome shift by State agencies towards encouraging millet based farming systems in rain fed areas – primarily for their ability to survive and offer nutritious foods. Their role in strengthening rural livelihoods, preservation of local cultures, however, is not yet fully recognised. The criticality of community led processes is grossly underestimated. While the revival is fundamentally the community’s choice, it is being facilitated by a civil society or a local agency or organisation. Also, these approaches are based on meeting multiple requirements – improving farm productivity, resilient use of natural resources, diverse and better nutritional access, feed and fodder management, access to inputs and markets.

The communities having recognised the benefits, are reviving these farming systems. They adopt alternative farming methods, innovate, exchange their learnings and manage their input systems like, seeds, collectively. For instance, the tribal households in Odisha have reduced their vulnerability to climate change and addressed the problem of malnutrition by relying on millet based mixed farming systems. The traditional crop combinations were revived which offered a diverse diet which included proteins, carbohydrates, fibres, starch, vitamins and minerals. Women members preserved around thirty four traditional varieties of pulses, millets and vegetables. (Krushna Chandra Sahu, p.6).

These systems are embracing new innovations too. Agroecological innovations like System of Millet Intensification and System of Crop intensification are being promoted to deal with unfavourable and extreme situations threatening the survival of the cropping systems. With adoption of these approaches, the plant growth and yields improved substantially and crop losses minimised. (Nitin Kumbhar et al., p.14; Panda and Adhikari, p. 10).

There have been efforts to revive forgotten varieties too. For instance, bajra based cropping systems revived a whole gamut of local cultures and cuisine. Besides this, the mixed cropping systems with bajra has ensured food security for 1300 buffaloes, 7000 goats, 50 cows, 300 sheep and 50 horses  in Kerwawal  village. (Aman Singh and Pratibha Sisodia, p.22). Similarly, an interesting initiative has been successfully implemented to revive local brown millet which offers multiple benefits to the communities. (Anitha Reddy and Krishna Prasad, p.28).

Support for expansion

In spite of its inherent advantages and growing awareness in consumers and policy circles, much more needs to be done to popularise and promote millets on a wider scale. These include wider availability of processing equipment, investing in improving millet food quality standards, more proactive push into national and State managed public distribution systems and subsidised food schemes (Israel Oliver King et al., p.18). An individual’s efforts in promoting millets, training and motivating youth, millet foods and cuisine in a big way, can serve as a model for inspiration and emulation (Amit Chakravarty, p.34).

In spite of the pioneering work being done by MINI (Millet Network of India) and its regional and state chapters, there could be further impetus provided by the policy to recognise and support millet based farming systems. There are indications that the Government of India is planning to brand millets as nutri cereals,  scale up production, support mechanical harvesters  and distribute millets through PDS (p.31). Some State Governments like Karnataka are addressing the Minimum Support Price issue too. Government of India is asking UN to declare 2018 as International Year of Millets.

While the consumer demand and supportive policies may certainly give a new impetus and energy to this movement, one should be cautious about millet promotion becoming too commercial and consumeristic. Only a few varieties dominating the urban markets meeting urban demand is not a desirable development. (Debjeet Sarangi and Kavya Chowdhry, p. 26).  Let us not forget that millets represent a repository of generations of community wisdom and any effort in promoting millets  should be rooted in local tradition.

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