Getting to the village of Nongtraw in northeastern India involves navigating down 2,500 steep steps. The hourlong descent is one reason the 200 or so people who live deep within the valley where the village lies, all members of the Khasi tribe, rarely travel far from home. The beauty of this place pulls you in. From the top step, you can just make out a small rectangle of reddish-brown soil, mostly hidden by tropical vegetation and tree cover. This is the only clearing amid the miles of thick and lush green below.
As you walk deeper into the valley, you begin to see that the rectangle is Nongtraw’s village square, the community’s focal point, surrounded by some 30 bamboo houses. Toward the end of the descent, tree branches seem to reach out toward you, most laden with fruit and filled with flowers, their colors heightened by the sunlight that filters into the valley. This secluded village is difficult to access and even more difficult to leave.
Anything from the outside world, including food, must be carried by hand down these 2,500 steps, so for centuries the people of Nongtraw have produced as much of their own food and drink as possible. A tea, sha shiah krot, is made from dried roots foraged from the surrounding forest and sipped from bamboo cups. Honey is harvested from bees that nest in tree trunks purposely hollowed out by the villagers. But the most important food of all in this place—that is, until recent decades—was millet, a grain that is one of the most nutrient-packed foods domesticated by humans.
Long before the Khasi people began growing rice and buying wheat, millet was an essential source of energy, a crop that could be harvested, stored, and ground into flour. Over time, as seeds were saved and passed on through generations of farmers, different types of millets became adapted to the ecosystem around the village: the soil, climate, altitude, and availability of water. Cultural preferences also added to the process of seed selection, with some plants being preferred and then replanted because their seeds had a particular taste, texture, or color.
In Nongtraw, one type of millet that came to be prized above all was called raishan, a creamy-colored grain that the community used to make breads, soups, stews, and biscuits. It was a staple food there until the early 1970s, when, because of global events in the postwar era, raishan, like many other millets across Asia and Africa, became nearly extinct.
The term “millet” covers a huge family of grains produced by a collection of plants that possess small seeds and are mostly grown on marginal land—in other words, places where soil is poor and dry, irrigation might not be possible, and access to markets is difficult.
But after decades of neglect, millets are being seen as an important food once more. Last year, following a proposal from the Indian government, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution decreeing that 2023 would be the International Year of Millets, a strategy designed to coordinate agricultural research across continents, spread awareness, and develop market opportunities for farmers and processors. The U.N. hopes to encourage more parts of Asia and Africa to replace the “big three”—rice, wheat, and maize (corn), which combined provide the world with more than 50 percent of its calories—with millets.
“For too long, millets have been seen as a food of poor farmers,” said Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes, the director-general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or Icrisat. “Urbanization and poor land management is resulting in the loss of agricultural land. With millets, it’s possible to reclaim degraded dry lands. This makes millets critical in feeding a growing world.”
Until the 1960s and the arrival of the Green Revolution and its wheat and rice cultivation, millet was a main staple in India; however, between 1962 and 2010, per capita consumption of the grain fell by almost 90 percent, from 33 kilograms per year to just 4. During the same period, wheat consumption almost doubled, from 27 to 52 kilograms. But replacing native cultivated millets with new water- and fertilizer-hungry, high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice has had its consequences: Water resources have been depleted, soils decimated, and farmers have become dependent on expensive inputs, particularly fertilizers.
Indians now depend on modern varieties of white rice and refined wheat flour for much of their diet: As a result, 1 in 6 people are undernourished, nearly 1 in 4 adults are considered overweight, and large numbers of preschool children and adolescents are affected by some form of micronutrient deficiency. More than half of all women in India are anemic, and in states where millet’s decline has been greatest, zinc deficiency has rocketed. (Millet is rich in zinc, iron, and fiber.) Large sections of the Indian population are now calorie-rich but micronutrient poor; millions of Indians are literally stuffed and starved.
Nongtraw, however, is bucking what has appeared to be the unstoppable trend of declining millet cultivation in India. By helping to restore types of millets close to extinction, growing neglected varieties of this so-called orphan crop, the community is pointing the way to a more sustainable means of farming and eating.
Common or proso millet is believed to have been domesticated in northern China around 7,000 years ago and later adopted by farmers around the Mediterranean and grown in drought-prone areas. Today, you’re likely to come across it as an ingredient in multiseed bread. Another important species, foxtail millet, was also domesticated in ancient China. It is still an important staple to millions of people in the global south, but in North America and Europe, it’s a grain commonly found in pet shops and sold as bird feed. A different group of millets was domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, including fonio, pearl millet, and sorghum, which remains one of the continent’s most essential foods.
The earliest known Indian civilizations all grew millet, including sanwa, browntop, kodo, and little millet. India is important in the evolution of millets because by 100 B.C., in addition to its own indigenous varieties, all the diversity from China and Africa converged there, traded along the Silk Road. Excavations of 2,000-year-old Indian villages have uncovered up to 20 different types of millets. Each variety had a specific use, whether for making porridges, beers, or flatbreads.
British colonizers, ignorant of how nutritionally important millet was, disregarded it in favor of wheat and other lucrative crops such as indigo, the source of a natural dye. Agronomists also failed to record the diversity of the grain accurately; distinct varieties were often grouped together, resulting in unique traits and local adaptions being left undocumented. Millet’s decline continued after Indian independence. The technologies and seeds of the Green Revolution, backed by government subsidies, meant rice and wheat were in the ascendency and millets were increasingly relegated to animal feed. By the early 1970s, many varieties of millets, once staples of Indian communities, including raishan, were edging toward extinction.
After the 1970s, another policy implemented by the Indian government helped accelerate the decline of millets. The state-run Public Distribution System (PDS) today provides more than $2 billion worth of subsidized food—mostly rice, wheat, cooking oil, and sugar—to India’s poorest 160 million households. Among the recipients are India’s tribal communities, including the Khasi people. The PDS covers the procurement, transportation, and allocation of grains, and in the words of the Khasi villagers, these became a source of “easy food.” As a result, the incentive to grow millet, which is labor-intensive to harvest and mill, further declined.
Then, in 2007 and 2008, in India and elsewhere in Asia, a severe supply crisis caused by drought, a series of bad harvests, outbreaks of crop diseases, and perilously low grain reserves hit food systems. Governments then banned rice exports, causing market uncertainty and prices to rise dramatically (by as much as 50 percent in the span of four months). In Nongtraw, the community’s response was to become more self-reliant and bring back lost millets, nutrient-rich grains that had evolved and adapted there and could grow without copious amounts of water or expensive chemical inputs. Millet also offered greater resistance than rice and wheat to pests and crop diseases.
The world population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Faced with this forecast, the disappearance of one type of an ancient millet such as raishan might seem an irrelevance. Surely, what the planet needs is more food and thus higher-yielding modern crops, right? But in fact, we’re starting to realize that agricultural biodiversity, or agrobiodiversity, is essential for our future, and the Khasi villagers of Nongtraw now look like trailblazers. Millet is recognized as a solution to many of India’s food problems.
Millet is a food with a vast amount of genetic diversity. The world’s largest collection of millets is in a gene bank maintained by Icrisat in Hyderabad, in southern India. It contains 72,000 unique samples collected from around the world. Each has its own set of genetic traits conferring flavors, textures, colors, and nutrients, along with unique adaptations to different environmental stresses, including soil types, water availability, climatic extremes, pests, and diseases. Many of the millets in the Icrisat collection are endangered; no longer grown in farmers’ fields, their valuable genetic traits are being stored inside jars for safekeeping at minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit).
They’re being saved to give us options, and the world needs this crop diversity more than ever. Climate change is one reason: This year has seen droughts across North America and Europe devastate farm yields, while a record-breaking heat wave in India has resulted in a reduction in the wheat crop, some farmers saying by a third, others by as much as 50 percent. And, of course, there is Russia’s war in Ukraine, a conflict that offers a powerful reminder of how fragile the global food chain is.
This fragility has been created only in recent decades, however. For most of the 10,000 or so years since humans began farming, diversity was the rule. It’s only in recent times that homogeneity has become the norm, and most of the world now eats the same food. Of the 6,000 to 7,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calculates that the world now mostly eats nine, of which just three—rice, wheat, and maize—provide 50 percent of all calories. Add potato, barley, palm oil, soy, and sugar (beet and cane), and you have 75 percent of all the calories that fuel our species.
Not only do we depend on a small number of foods, but we also rely on a very few varieties of these foods. For instance, although there are more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by just one, the Cavendish, which is now under threat from a devastating fungal disease, TR4. One reason it has become extremely susceptible is the genetic uniformity of this commodity crop. (Bananas aren’t propagated from seed; instead, suckers—or roots—are taken from one plant and inserted into the soil to create the next generation.) Another reason is that these clones are planted in monocultures, which means they’re grown continuously as a single crop on a scale that can only be comprehended from the view of an airplane or by satellite. If the fungus infects one plant, it can infect them all.
Because of the drive toward everyone eating the same varieties of grains, fruits, and vegetables, the genetic resources contained within crop varieties such as raishan—foods that fed people for millenniums—are being lost. For much of the postwar period, traditional crops including millets were considered backward, ripe for replacement by the new, technologically driven Green Revolution crops. But the narrative is changing. Scientists, policymakers, and influential business leaders within the global food system now recognize that with the increasing loss of diversity in the world, risks are building. A significant shift is underway.
At the 2019 Climate Action Summit held at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Emmanuel Faber, then-CEO of the dairy giant Danone, told business leaders and politicians that the food system created over the last century was at a dead end. “We thought with science we could change the cycle of life and its rules,” he said. The monoculture approach was now bankrupt, Faber explained. “We’ve been killing life, and now we need to restore it.”
Much of the world’s food is not only the same but produced in only a small number of regions. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 60 percent of global production is concentrated in regions in just five countries. This means that when catastrophic events occur, the impact on global food supply chains is devastating. The interconnectedness of economies and trade means the war in Ukraine has sent ripple effects far and wide. It has the potential to cause a collapse of supply chains far more severe than was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, “beginning a process of deglobalization on steroids,” as Michael Every, a global strategist at the Dutch cooperative Rabobank, described it. At the start of Russia’s war, policymakers were quick to recognize the need to diversify energy supplies; they’re now starting to realize the need to diversify food supplies, too.
Faced with greater climatic extremes as well as geopolitical instability, we need greater diversity on all fronts: locations of agricultural activity, methods of production, supply chains, and especially agrobiodiversity. In its Global Risks Report 2022, the World Economic Forum set out the three most pressing global threats as climate action failure, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss. To tackle these risks, maintaining business as usual in global food production, with the same varieties of our staple crops being grown homogeneously in fields across the world, is no longer an option. “The worst thing we can do is carry on as we are,” said James Lomax, a sustainable food systems officer at the U.N. Environment Program. “We can start by diversifying the crops we plant.”
At the end of February, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminded us that the world is on a path to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming within the next decade. In listing some of the impacts and vulnerabilities, the report’s authors highlighted heightened food and water insecurities. We have only a brief window of time to avoid the very worst, they concluded.
More and more evidence is building for the argument that propping up the existing system with more fossil fuel-dependent inputs and attempting to chase ever higher yields are no longer the way forward. That increasingly appears to be a reductionist approach that fails to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the global food system. In 2019, when a team of scientists calculated what would happen if millets (including pearl millet and sorghum) replaced large areas of rice cultivation in India, their results suggested potential advantages, such as lower greenhouse gas emissions, greater resilience to climate change, reduced water and energy use, and an increase in access to micronutrients—all “without reducing calorie production or requiring more land,” they concluded.
The small and remote village of Nongtraw in India is an important story for people in pursuit of solutions to global food insecurity. In the early 2000s, just two farmers there had kept a stash of millet seed. By the time I visited in 2017, millet was being grown by every farmer in Nongtraw, and new technology is now helping to make millet a more appealing crop to grow. In another Khasi village, Thangsning, 15 miles to the south, raishan had also made a comeback.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I caught up with some of the villagers in Nongtraw. Many more millions of people across India had become food-insecure as supply chains collapsed and markets were closed. “We are doing OK,” said Pius Ranee, one of the villagers. “We still have the skills to forage for wild ingredients, and we also have a plentiful supply of millet. If we ever needed a reminder of why we need diversity, this is it.”
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