Millet a sustainable, nutritious alternative grain
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Millet, a sustainably grown, nutritiously dense grain with the potential to curb hunger around the world, is stepping into the agricultural spotlight.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently named 2023 as the International Year of the Millets. The declaration means to promote the global challenges millet can solve through increased production, such as climate issues, affordability and nutrition.
Raju Soolanayakanahally, a senior researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatchewan, has partnered with researchers from his native India to study how the benefits of millet can be maximized.
Millet is commonly prepared in Indian cuisine, and Soolanayakanahally was surprised it wasn’t nearly as popular in Canada, where it would not only make for a nutritious part of a balanced diet, but would be an ideal crop for Prairie producers.
“I thought, why not millets in the Prairie regions?” he said.
Widely produced and consumed for more than 7,000 years in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa to Asia, the cereal crop grows best in arid and semiarid climates where other grains may not do well without irrigation water.
To produce one gram of wheat requires 500 grams of water, whereas millet only requires half of that. Millet also requires less fertilizer input and is very climate resilient. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the United Nations in December that millet can help the world recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which has impacted grain production.
“At such a time, a global movement related to millets is an important step, since they are easy to grow, climate resilient and drought resistant,” he said.
The reason millet is so nutritious is thanks to its micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, as well as dietary fibre and antioxidants. The magnesium and potassium found in millet can reduce blood pressure, therefore minimizing the risk of a heart attack and stroke, while its low glycemic index makes it an ideal food for diabetics. The high levels of fibre found in the cereal also makes it ideal for lowering cholesterol, according to a review by Frontiers in Plant Science.
“When we look at rice or wheat … they don’t have a similar nutritional quality,” Soolanayakanahally said. Millet can be especially helpful for infants and babies that suffer from anemia.
Low levels of iron, zinc and other nutrients contribute to “hidden hunger,” something that Soolanayakanahally is currently researching alongside his partners at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. Together, they have created a roadmap for future study of millet using genetic resources, resulting in a genetic atlas of the different stages in the plant’s life cycle to identify its super-food properties.
India has one of the world’s highest rates of children suffering from various types of malnutrition, a study Soolanayakanahally shared with the Sun, says. A total of 44 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight, while 72 per cent of infants have anemia. The rate of undernutrition from lack of micronutrients, especially iron, is also quite high in India, where more than half the women have iron deficiency.
To combat these nutritional deficiencies, Indian schools started providing midday meals to students where millet played a starring role, replacing rice and wheat-based meals. As a result, health rates are beginning to improve, Soolanayakanahally said.
The atlas is also an important step toward uncovering the genetic networks that give millet its unique nutritional and stress tolerate features. The data Soolanayakanahally and the scientists in Bangalore are uncovering could be used to breed new, improved varieties of millet with enhanced uptake of iron and zinc, which will support the fight of hidden hunger around the world.
“These micronutrient-rich crops or cereals [like millet] can be used around the world for solving malnutrition problem or hidden hunger,” Soolanayakanahally said.
Farmers should also take a keen interest in millet, since it’s an environmentally friendly crop to grow. With Ottawa’s 2023 Emissions Reduction Plan aiming for Canada to reach its emissions target of 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050, turning to crops like millet just makes sense, he added.
“Since millet requires low input of fertilizers, low input of water, and they sequester more carbon in the root, that also increases soil carbon as well.”
Millet also has the potential to teach researchers and scientists more about climate resiliency in other crops, too, including canola, wheat and barley, all of which grow in the Prairies.
“[Millet] has already figured out how to grow on marginal soils, how to grow with less water, less fertilizer inputs … and pest and disease resistance are very high,” Soolanayakanahally said. “This will be a great way for us to learn how to build climate resilient crops.”
Soolanayakanahally is planning to submit a proposal in April for more funding to Saskatchewan government’s Agriculture Development Fund to continue his research on growing millet in the Prairies.
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