Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Indian millet. Credit: Bioversity International/S.PadulosiNutritious millets were once a strong part of traditional diets in Southern India but have since become a 'forgotten food.' Bioversity International has been working with partners for 15 years to promote millet use and conservation.

Genetically diverse and adapted to a range of marginal growing conditions where grains such as wheat and rice are unsuccessful, millets mature quickly, are able to withstand climatic stress, and grow in a variety of soils. High in a range of micronutrients, including calcium, iron and dietary fiber, millets also offer a better balance of essential amino acids, and are therefore a more usable protein, than wheat, rice and maize.

Additionally, millet grains are rich in a variety of vitamins, have a low glycemic index, and contain antioxidants. In 2013, millets were incorporated into India's National Food Security Act, meaning these nutritious grains are now available to more than 800 million people at a subsidized rate.

The introduction of mechanical grain processing has greatly reduced the drudgery for women processing millets, who have taken advantage of their liberation to develop novel food products and recipes incorporating millets. With commercial partnerships for selling millet products, awareness has been raised about the nutritional value of millets.

Saving the most viable seeds of these crops suitable for each region has been a focus of the research. But this is not the limit of the focus. It’s on the entire value chain, starting with encouraging farmers to grow millets in their fields, introducing efficient methods of cultivation and harvesting, and incorporating enhanced nutrition into the communities.

Bioversity International's research approach

Electrical mini-mills allow a woman to prepare the millet for a day's meals in 10 minutes instead of 2 hours, just one factor the created a resurgence of interest in abandoned crops.
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<p>Credit: J. Cherfas/BioversityMinor millets are important food grain and fodder crops in South Asia, particularly in marginal hilly and semi-arid regions. They hold a central role in local food cultures and have great promise to address food security and poverty challenges in South Asia, but faced challenges to greater use, including arduous processing and a stigma as ‘food of the poor.’

Bioversity International has concentrated on direct use among the project participants and on creating markets for millet-based products. Up to 69% of women reported that millet had become a staple of their families’ diets.

The programme worked to develop the value chains of minor millets by contributing to the livelihoods of the rural population through the introduction of a new avenue of economic development, and by augmenting diets with the nutritional grain. Additionally, the programme sought to strengthen the conservation of the millets’ genetic diversity. 

Results

  • India’s National Food Security Act incorporated millet into the public distribution system, and a farm diversity program promoting millet cultivation specifically targeted states with malnutrition.
  • School children eating millet for lunch had up to 37% higher levels of haemoglobin over students eating white rice.
  • Farmers and grain processors, particularly women’s groups, have seen crop yields increase by as much as 77%, with a corresponding increase in net income of up to 50%—profit from millet is approximately 30 rupees for every kg sold, where the poverty line in India is 32 rupees per day in rural areas and 47 rupees per day in urban areas.
  • Access to improved varieties of millet account for improved production, with community seed banks established and growing.
  • Increased markets for small-scale producers have seen restaurants adding millet-based dishes, and women producing millet-based snacks, which have led to increased consumption and demand.

Partners

CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), M.S. Swaminathan Foundation, Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research, and Development (LI-BIRD), Nepal Agricultural Research Council, Action for Social Advancement (ASA), Gene Campaign 

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