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Opinion: Millet – An ancient grain solution for modern global challenges
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

24 August 2023

Opinion: Millet – An ancient grain solution for modern global challenges

The United Nations has labelled 2023 as the 'International Year of Millets,' an ancient cereal grain that is considered low maintenance and drought-resistant. Himanshu Gupta Co-Founder & CEO of  ClimateAi, explains why this ancient commodity is having a moveable impact on today's global food supply chain. What do sugar, spices and Spam all have in common? Each one changed the course of history, creating a sizeable impact on the way we live, trade and even wage wars. Since the UN dubbed 2023 the 'International Year of Millets,' this grain is now positioned to do the same. These hardy dryland grains, traditionally grown in Asian and African countries, are gaining in global popularity for their nutritional qualities, climate resilience and market opportunity. As accelerating climate change impacts the availability and quality of staple crops, millet offers a reprieve. It also promises to help fight some of climate change’s cascading effects, like world hunger and malnutrition. Today, roughly 1 billion children around the world lack adequate nutrition. Moving millet to the global stage can add a shock absorber for businesses, especially when traditional grains struggle. From its enhanced nutritional value to its high tolerance for dry landscapes to its expected market size growth, companies should usher millets into the supermarkets and onto the menus of the world.

Why millet, why now?

Today, the modern food chain is vulnerable to climatological and geopolitical forces. In 2022, grain stocks dropped due to ongoing drought and Russia's war on Ukraine – creating shortages around the world. Maize, wheat and rice make up 42% of the world’s calorie intake and 37% of the protein intake. This number is even higher in emerging economies, so shortages have been deeply felt. Meanwhile, research from NASA suggests that increasing temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns and higher surface CO2 concentrations from greenhouse gas emissions could reduce maize yields by 24% by 2030. With corn being a $94.2 billion industry, a 24% decrease leaves a $22.6 billion hole for millet to fill. Plus, with around 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost globally during postharvest operations, millets offer a reliable return on investment and food source. They have a long shelf life, making them ideal ‘famine reserve’ crops – which would create more availability and stable pricing. Scientists also found that exposing rice to the CO2 levels expected before the end of the century produces rice with lower levels of protein, iron and zinc. Corn, wheat and rice are food system staples and account for 90% of the world’s cereal production. In a world of shifting climates, we have to re-think what we grow and eat. Understanding millet's fast-growing advantages Millet represents a resilient, nutritious alternative to grains susceptible to climate change. For companies and governments facing difficulty growing crops and feeding populations, that’s welcome news. Consider: on the production level, millet grows twice as fast as wheat. Compared to rice, pearl millet uses 70% less water (120-140cm versus 20cm). Next to corn and soybeans, it is less expensive to grow. And when it comes to climate change, millet tolerates shallow, low-fertility and acidic soil. It can also withstand extreme weather, including droughts, given its deep root system. Millets' short growing season makes them ideal for organisations looking to generate revenue via multiple cropping systems. Beyond a cash crop, millet can be grown with legumes for cover cropping to support sustainable agriculture. The deep roots improve soil structure and water retention. It's also a nutritious food source for livestock. Millet isn’t just a filler food, either. It has a high nutritional value and is a good source of energy. It contains complex carbohydrates, fibre, antioxidants and vitamins, such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper and manganese. For those with micronutrient deficiencies, millet can provide 30-40% of the inorganic nutrients needed with its high concentration of iron and zinc. Millet is linked to lower inflammation, reduced heart disease risk, and improved blood sugar control. Long-term millet consumption has also been found to lower post-meal blood glucose levels by 12% to 15%. Additionally, as a gluten-free grain used in everything from porridge to pasta, from bread flour to baked goods, it's safe for those with celiac disease. This market is already expanding for agribusinesses. Globally, the gluten-free products market size has risen from $6.4 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.8% up to 2030. The grain is already grown in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa (especially in South India, Mali, Nigeria and Niger), so these regions stand to economically prosper from growing millet as crops or seeds to export. Millet could also be a useful crop on other continents when drought conditions impact areas and can no longer sustain usual cash crops.

The future of millet The next steps for millet are to increase awareness, research, innovation, and financial backing. Seed producers have already started innovating to create an even more resilient and nutritious strand of millet. 200g of biofortified pearl millet, or two pieces of millet flatbread, can provide children and women with over 80% of their daily recommended iron. India produces 41% of the world’s millet yield. Multiple organisations across India are working to streamline and capitalise on millet’s banner year. Yet, India mainly exports whole grains. There are few value-added products on the market – a major opportunity for farmers and multinational companies. Currently, millet only accounts for 3% of the global grains trade. By 2050, wheat and rice are expected to decline by 17% due to climate change. The millet market is on track to grow from $9 billion to $12 billion by 2025. It’s likely consumers will quickly adopt millet because of its long list of health benefits and versatility. Ten years ago was the International Year of Quinoa. Today, we see how successful that has been for the superfood. Now is the time for investors, farmers, policymakers, and professionals across the food industry to sow sustainable seeds that will grow into a more prosperous future for all.

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