In South Asia, lack of dietary diversity is one of the key factors behindmalnutrition and the prevalence of non‐communicable diseases suchas diabetes. Small millets, grown as a complement to existing crops,could contribute to an answer. Performing well in marginalenvironments they have superior nutritional properties, including highmicronutrient and dietary fibre content, and low glycemic index. However, there has been a drastic decline in production andconsumption of small millets mainly due to limited productivity, highdrudgery involved in their processing, negative perceptions of small millets as a food for the poor and policy neglect when compared toother crops. Realising the importance of small millets for nutrition security, DHAN Foundation with its partners Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and McGill University have been undertaking research-for-development projects to increase the production and household consumption of small millets since 2011 in two phases.
Many developing countries are affected by health, food security and climate change related issues simultaneously. On the health front, they are facing the double burden of malnutrition, with hidden hunger on the one side and obesity on the other side. In India, there is large scale prevalence of stunted growth among under five age group children (39%) and anaemia among women of reproductive age (48%) (Global Nutrition Report, 2015). On the other hand, obesity is fast increasing across the rural and urban areas of India (Kalra et al. 2012). Furthermore, chronic and non-communicable diseases are on the rise. For example, the prevalence of Type-II diabetes mellitus and impaired glucose tolerance were reported, at an alarming rate, both rural (2.4%) and urban (11.6%) populations in India (Mohan et al. 2009). Increasing research and epidemiological evidence link the lack of dietary diversity to these health issues (Khoury et al. 2014).
The other phenomenon is breaking down of local and regional food systems leading to fast decline in dietary diversity and food safety. Increasing presence of chemicals is felt in the food production and food processing, making the food consumed by urban consumers a cocktail of artificial chemical compounds. The breaking down of local food systems is partly due to large scale decline in agricultural biodiversity, which has been happening across the states over the years. Location or region specific diverse farming systems have given way to less diverse cropping system and sometimes monoculture on a large scale. As a result, the farming has become a risky occupation. Climate change related issues in the recent past compounded the situation much further. The impact on the farming community is noticeable in the last one decade; particularly extreme weather conditions related to rainfall has resulted in considerable crop losses. Late onset of monsoon, early withdrawal and long dry spells within the cropping period has become quite frequent, leading to increasing uncertainty. More so, in the large rainfed tracts of India where large sections of the poor in the country resides. This trend is worrisome, given the fact that growth of irrigated agriculture reached a plateau and rainfed agriculture has to meet our food security.
It is in this background of different but interrelated dominant issues faced by the society, the role and importance of small millets can be understood. Small millets are one of the important traditional food groups that have been moved out of the food basket in recent times (Ramachandran 2007). Small millets in the Indian context include finger millet, kodo millet, little millet, foxtail millet, proso millet, barnyard millet and browntop millet. Small millets have been cultivated in India for around 3000 years, making them an integral part of the culture and history of India. References to small millets can be found in mythology, poetry, religious practices and ayurvedic recipes. Small millets offer better nutrition with various micronutrients like vitamin B complex, calcium, iron and sulphur, high protein, high dietary fibre and low glycemic index when compared to mainstream cereals like rice and wheat (Saleh et al. 2013). They are known as both preventive and curative foods. They help to effectively manage life style diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, anaemia and some kinds of cancer.
Small millet crops also have the ability to adapt to a wider range of growing environments, including arid and semi-arid environments. Small millets are drought resistant, require few external inputs, require less water than many other cereals and are often able to cope with poor soils. They are considered as climate smart crops given their ability to withstand difficult climatic situations. They are also safe source of food as no or meagre farm chemicals are used for their cultivation. They are part of the diverse cropping systems with many healthy associated crops like horsegram, niger, etc. and many uncultivated greens. Besides nutritious food, they also offer nutritious fodder. They play important role in ensuring food and income security of the rainfed farmers. In these ways, small millets fall in the sweet spot where in health of eco system, people and economy converges.
Despite these advantages, small millets cultivation and consumption have declined across the world. In India, the area under cultivation declined from 7.26 million ha to 1.98 million ha (a decline of 56.4% in finger millet and 82.5% for the other small millets) between 1965-66 and 2011-12 (Government of India, 2014). This decline in area has a direct bearing on the overall decline in the consumption of small millets.