Millets are highly nutritious grains that can grow in semiarid to arid climates, which makes them important crops across the tropics of Asia and Africa. Rooted in ancient traditions, they were amongst the first plants to be domesticated and have become a staple in India, Nigeria, Niger and China to name a few. Despite their many benefits, their popularity has waned due to different agricultural policies in the last century.
However, the United Nations (UN) recognised their potential which, in the face of the climate crisis, stands out even more. The UN’s General Assembly decided to dedicate the whole year of 2023 to the cereal in an awareness-raising campaign led by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The FAO is the UN’s specialised agency leading international efforts to end world hunger. Working Abroad spoke to Claudia Valdivielso, the FAO’s communications specialist, to find out more.
Claudia explains that the decision to make 2023 the international year of the millet was prompted by a UN resolution adopted in March 2021, originally suggested by the government of India. “It aims to advocate for diversified, balanced and healthy diets through sustainable production and consumption of millets,” she outlines. “They can grow on arid lands with minimal inputs, which makes them an ideal solution for increasing self-sufficiency and reducing reliance on imported cereal grains.”
According to Claudia, the international year of the millet aims “to increase awareness of the benefits of the millet and promote its consumption worldwide, invigorate market recognition and promote efficient value chains among other objectives”.
As well as to improve knowledge about the crop globally, the campaign is also advocating for the conservation of traditional diets and culture, which millets have been part of in several countries. Working Abroad offers a volunteering trip to India, one of the main producers of the grain. The project offers an opportunity to help with the conservation and support of both bears and elephants at its ethical rescue centres.
The initiative is all about combined efforts, hoping to mobilise a range of partners and stakeholders as well as engage the public to trigger behavioural change. This includes calling on governments and policymakers to prioritise the production and consumption of millets as a way to fight world hunger, build resilience to climate change, increase biodiversity and promote a diverse diet, Claudia outlines. “FAO encourages them to take policy and legislative actions that promote the cultivation of millets and support research and development,” she adds. Claudia then notes the need to focus on researching nutritional values, properties and characteristics of the millet as well as appropriate mechanisation and other methodologies that can make millet-based production systems more sustainable.
Sustainable production of the millet should also be supported with investment from the private sector. “The private sector could facilitate access to credit or other financial support, millet-specific training, farming equipment and new technologies that improve the handling – harvest and post-harvest processing – of millets and thus their quality,” Claudia highlights. Also important is the food industry’s role in increasing the production and promotion of millet-based products. “By learning about millets and including them in our diets, together we can create a growing demand for them.”
She explains that this can also be helped by chefs, nutrition advocates or restaurants using millets in their recipes and menus and advocating for their consumption. Claudia then notes the importance of educating the public on “new and appealing ways” to prepare these in line with food-based dietary guidelines. And what better place to start with education than at schools – “children should also be encouraged to learn more about millets, their history and benefits from a young age as well as have the opportunity to taste millets on school menus”. To inspire this, the FAO has also launched Chef’s challenge on its social media, working with chefs from all regions who have created various dishes including the versatile grain.
Including millet in our diets would not only benefit the environment but also our bodies. Ticking all the boxes, millets are said to be high in protein, fibre, essential vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium. In addition, they can help with overall health and energy level maintenance and have been shown to drain out toxins from our bodies, allowing our organs to work optimally.