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Climate smart crops

Tubers, pulses and millets are important for the livelihoods and nutrition of poor farmers, especially in fragile regions. These crops are not only underutilised, but are also under-researched. Ama Sangathan, a women federation consisting of 1200 indigenous women, have revived these crops in two blocks in Odisha, by their vibrant campaigning.

A woman harvesting diverse millets
A woman harvesting diverse millets

In Odisha State of India, tubers, pulses and millets had traditional place in the diet of the tribal communities. They ensured food and nutritional security during periods of food scarcity. However, with commercialisation of agriculture leading to monocropping systems of cultivation of paddy, these traditional food crops lost their place in the cropping systems. Also, extensive application of chemical inputs has resulted in decreasing natural fertility of the soil with diminishing yield. To make the situation worse, in recent years, Odisha’s vulnerability to natural disaster has been alarming. Recurrent cyclones, floods, and droughts severely affect the livelihood of the majority resource poor farmers of the State.

It is in this grim situation, Ama Sangathan (AMS), a women federation representing 1200 indigenous women has undertaken a vibrant campaigning on reviving cultivation of tubers, pulses, millets.  This is being done in two blocks – Kashipur of Rayagada and Thuamulrampur of Kalahandi districts, with the support of Raghuraj Foundation.

The bargaining and negotiation skills of women farmers improved and their contribution to supplementing household income is being recognised.

Tuber crops adapt to a wide range of agro-climatic conditions and give good performance even under marginal growing conditions. These crops cease tuber development as well as vegetative growth and become dormant during unfavourable conditions such as drought, flood, and heat-stress condition. They resume growth during favourable conditions, hence chances of crop failure is very less. On the other hand, pulses and millets which are an important component of food and nutritional security of the poor, need less water and produce assured and high yield.

Table 1: Nutritional value of tuber crops

Nutrients EFY Cassava Sweet Potato
Protein (percent) 2.0 2.5 2.2
Fat (percent) 0.1 0.2 00
Starch (percent) 16.6 32.4 21
Energy (Kcal) 75.0 135 00
Vitamin B-1 (mg) 0.6 0.04 00
Vitamin B-2 (mg) 0.7 0.05 00
Vitamin C* (mg) 0.0 34 00
β carotene (µg) 26.2 00 00
Calcium (mg) 12.7 26 30
Phosphorous (mg) 67.0 32 49
Magnesium (mg) 47.0 00 24
Sodium (mg) 4.1 2 13
Potassium (mg) 622 39.4 373
Sulphur (mg) 11.8 39.4 29
Iron (mg) 0.51 0.9 0.8
Copper (mg) 0.18 00 00
Zinc (mg) 1.05 00 00
Manganese (mg) 0.31 00 00
Boron (mg) 0.7 00 00

Source: Tropical Tuber Crops edited by Balagopalan et. al (1999)

* Values are expressed in mg/100 g fresh weight

Shobini Muduli is delighted to harvest Sweet Potato
Shobini Muduli is delighted to harvest Sweet Potato

Promoting tuber cultivation

The rainfed hilly terrains of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts are ideal to grow Elephant Foot Yam-EFY (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius). EFY has several advantages – it tolerates shade conditions, it is easy to cultivate, offers high productivity, less susceptible to pests and diseases, is in steady demand and fetches reasonably good price. AMS organised a series of interactive meetings with the farmers and shared the importance of EFY. Field demonstrations were conducted where farmers were trained on agroecological method of tuber crops cultivation. After realising various advantages of EPY cultivation, gradually the farmers started to show their interest.

Initially, 50 farmers of Rayagada cultivated EFY. Famers followed agro ecological ways of cultivation. Before planting, the tubers are treated with cow dung slurry mixed with Trichoderma. After planting and compacting the planted tubers, pits are covered with organic mulches like green leaves and dried paddy straw. It was observed that mulching immediately after planting not only conserves soil moisture and regulates soil temperature, but also suppresses weed growth.

Along with EFY, farmers also started cultivating Cassava (Manihot esculenta) and Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Cassava is widely recognised for its ability to sustain under fluctuating climate especially during drought by shedding leaves, tolerates high temperature and grows well in marginal soils.  Sweet potato tolerates saline conditions and can withstand flash floods and mid-season drought.

Promoting inter-copping and mixed-cropping

AMS encouraged inter-cropping and mixed-cropping of pulses and millets with tuber crops as it offers insurance against crop failure, promotes crop diversification and  helps in restoring soil fertility.

Sukri Majhi showing Cassava tuber
Sukri Majhi showing Cassava tuber

Special focus was given to revive indigenous varieties of millets which is one of the staple foods for the communities in the region. AMS motivated farmers who had preserved millet seeds to multiply those varieties. Within a span of 5 years, kodo and little millets are revived. Farmers are now cultivating mixed-cropping of several millets like finger, pearl, foxtail, little, proso, kodo and barnyard.

In the case of cassava inter-cropped with millets, farmers produced 170 kg/0.4 hectare of millets resulting in a 10% increase in the farm income. Intercropping cassava with black beans produced 140 kg/0.4 hectare of beans, resulting in a 20% increase in income. When both pulses and millets were grown with cassava, 110 kg/0.4 hectare of millets and 85 kg/0.4 hectare of pulses were produced, resulting in a yield increase of 20% compared with cassava alone. All these inter-crops are harvested prior to cassava, hence it does not have adverse effect on the yield of cassava.

Table 2: Nutritional value of various millets

Millets Protein (g) Fibre (g) Minerals (g) Iron (mg) Calcium (mg)
Pearl 10.6 1.3 2.3 16.9 38
Finger 7.3 3.6 2.7 3.9 344
Foxtail 12.3 8 3.3 2.8 31
Proso 12.5 2.2 1.9 0.8 14
Kodo 8.3 9 2.6 0.5 27
Little 7.7 7.6 1.5 9.3 17


11.2 10.1 4.4 15.2 11

Source: MINI, Deccan Development Society, India.

Similarly, sweet potato inter-cropped with maize has substantially increased the tuber yield. Because, maize in this system not only provides additional yield but also acts as a live stake. The organic C content of the soil is enriched by the addition of dried maize haulms. Likewise, inter-cropping of red grams with sweet potato also produced better results, owing to the fact that red gram crop fixes atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. A range of pulses like green gram, black gram, cowpea are grown as inter-crops in EFY, during the initial stages of EFY cropping period.

The beneficial effect of pulse crops in improving soil health and sustaining productivity is remarkable. On the account of biological nitrogen fixation, addition of considerable amount of organic matter through root biomass and leaf fall, deep root systems, mobilisation of nutrients, protection of soil against erosion as cover-crop and improving microbial biomass, they keep soil productive and alive by bringing qualitative changes in physical, chemical and biological properties.   Millets require very less water and can withstand a certain degree of soil acidity and alkalinity, moisture stress, high temperature and variations in soils ranging from heavy to sandy in nature. Millets produce multiple securities – food, nutrition, fodder, fibre, health, and ecology.

Increasing market potential of tubers by value addition

To help farmers gain additional income from tuber cropping, AMS imparted training to the farmers on various methods of processing and value addition of cassava, EFY and sweet potato. As a result, farmers are now making a range of value added produces from tuber crops and getting fair price by directly selling the same at the local markets – For example, cassava chips, cassava “papad” prepared from cassava flour and wafers made from cassava starch. Some farmers of Rayagada are extending self-life of EFY tubers by converting them into cakes. Similarly, sweet potato is being processed into composite flour and chips.

Sliced Cassava being sun dried
Sliced Cassava being sun dried

Visible impacts

Earlier, farmers were confined to only mono-cropping, and faced crop loss due to late arrival of monsoon or low rainfall. Further, they had to face acute food shortage during June, July, August and September when the new crop was standing in fields. During this period, farmers unable to get enough food, either starved or consumed non-edible stuffs like mango kernel, tamarind seeds, and many other items which made them susceptible to food poisoning. But, now they are cultivating tubers, pulses and millets through mixed-cropping and inter-cropping round the year. The impact of this is phenomenal, especially on women and children, in terms of food availability and enhancing nutritional value of food basket.

“Last year, the monsoon was delayed. So the yield of paddy was very low. But, our tuber crops and pulses survived in this difficult situation too. I harvested 1.5 quintals of EFY, 0.70 quintal of cassava and 1 quintal of sweet potato along with a range of pulses and millets that has been grown with these tubers as inter-crops and mixed-crops. We had ample food as buffer stock for our household consumption and also earned INR 24844/- by selling the surplus produces at the local market. Besides, we are getting better price for our processed and value added tuber crops produces in the local market. Thanks to AMS for providing us the much needed technical support”, says overwhelmed Sobhini Muduli.

The processing and value addition of tuber crops has undoubtedly reinforced the livelihoods of many marginal rainfed farmers of the region. Firstly, farmers are now getting better market price for their processed and value added products. With proper processing and value addition, farmers are now able to store the surplus items for a longer period of time. They use these reserve food stocks during the food scarcity periods.  The bargaining and negotiation skills of women farmers have been improved and their contribution to supplementing household income is being recognised.

The application of organic inputs, inter-cropping of leguminous crops and millets along with adaptation of integrated pest management techniques has not only helped restore soil fertility, but has also rejuvenated the denuded landscape.

Tubers, pulses and millets are undoubtedly ‘climate smart crops’, important for the livelihoods and nutrition of poor farmers, especially in tropical and sub-tropical countries. These crops are not only underutilised, but are also under-researched. With adequate support and hand holding, these underutilised crops can substitute the major crops, while ensuring farm resilience. For this to happen, scientists, researchers and civil societies need to play an enabling role.


The authors are grateful to Debesh Prasad Padhy, former Senior Program Adviser of Agragamee and retired Director of Horticulture, OUAT, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, for providing technical inputs and key insights to the earlier draft of the article.

Abhijit Mohanty
Odisha, India
E-mail: abhijitmohanty10@yahoo.com

Sumani Jhodia
Ama Sangathan
Odisha, India