Torch bearers for millet seed security

Jan 19, 2014:
The National Biodiversity Authority has recognised 30 villages in Zaheerabad of Medak district of Andhra Pradesh that grow traditional and fast-disappearing millets as Agricultural Biodiversity Heritage Site (ABHS).

The Andhra Pradesh State Biodiversity Board (APSBB), which finally gave green signal for the rare recognition, has sent its recommendation to the National Biodiversity Board, which has approved the proposal making these villages to become first villages in India to be recognized as ABHS.
“The file is now with the agricultural department. By the end of January we will announce these villages as ABHS with or without their opinion,” a determined APSBB Chairman Dr R Hampaiah says. Thus, the dryland villages in four mandals and the 5,000-strong women farmers of the Deccan Development Society (DDS) that grow only “forgotten millets” without fertilisers or pesticides will join the list of 27 such other sites around that world by February.
“Nowhere in the world 60 different varieties are cultivated in 30,000 acres and the seeds are distributed among women farmers, assuring food safety and saving the environment,” says Dr SN Jadhav, Member Secretary, APSBB.

The 500-year-old banyan tree in Pillamarri tree spread on three acres of land in Mahbubnagar district and the rare forest on Tirumala hills are the other two sites in Andhra Pradesh that have such special recognition.

In fact, a few months ago, three members from the Board—Anisetty Murthy, Ashok Kumar and Hampaiah– had visited the farms to see the amazing agricultural biodiversity that was being conserved and propagated by the women of DDS.

The announcement added vigour to the 15th edition of biodiversity festival in Algole, a small village in Zaheerabad mandal in Medak district, from where a month-long bullock cart caravan yatra begins and tours 70 villages in all the four mandals of the heritage site, encouraging people to adopt forgotten crops.

“We are now trying introduce the concept in 18 other states in the country. The DDS even had its impact in Africa, where women are trying to take back farming from the hands of commercial organisations,” added DDS Director PV Sateesh.

While agriculture in other parts of the country was in doldrums, the sangham farmers were completely self-reliant as far as food, seeds and farming are concerned. When farmers elsewhere were facing the indignity of having to stand in long queues to access government supplied seeds, women of the DDS were staking their claim to the elusive mantle of food sovereignty.

Women of the DDS also succeeded in drawing the attention of the government to the need for including millets in government food programmes like PDS, the mid-day meal scheme and so on; the spate of orders asking for the inclusion of millets in these schemes is a testimony to the extent of success of the women of the DDS.

Some women farmers of the DDS also can handle the latest version of digital camera, the daily narrow cast of the Sangham FM radio and help save bio-diversity by cultivating forgotten millet crops with equal élan. Women camera operators of the Community Media Trust (CMT), probably the only such media house in the country, can handle, shoot, edit and produce short films without any outside help.

The initial toil and success of women was then presented to the outside world through photos and then videos. Then came the launch of the CMT, which has been winning several laurels for its amazing media work over the last decade.

The CMT runs a women’s video collective (WVC) and the first-ever community radio of India called Sangham Radio. While the WVC has been functioning since 1996, the Sangham Radio took up Narrowcasting since 1998 and has been on the air since October 2008, broadcasting two hours every day. Both these outfits are managed entirely by women from farming communities.

Chinna Narsamma, a small farmer who made a film “Community Conquers Hunger”, said that the sanghams were the first group in India to have started 100 days of employment for the poor, which preceded MGNREGA by 20 years.

Summer employment

Through this employment programme which they called summer employment, they brought over 5,000 acres of near fallow lands under cultivation, produced more than a million days of employment in 30 villages in 10 years and started producing over 20 million kg food every year. This was the first step in abandoning hunger in their sanghams.

Zaheerabad Punyamma added that the sanghams started leasing lands and launched collective farming groups on these leased lands and produced additional food for their families.

In two decades, the sanghams have leased more than 1,000 acres of land and produced over half a million kg of food for their groups. Dandu Swaroopamma, a community filmmaker and a member of the DDS Food Sovereignty Trust said that the sanghams have brought over 4,500 acres of cultivable fallows under cultivation and produce nearly a million kg or more food every year.

They have done poverty mapping of their villages and identified over 10,000 families as recipients of their jowar-based millet rations. Each family has received a ration card through which they can draw between 10-25 kg of jowar every month depending on their poverty status. The jowar is sold at 25 per cent of the market price to the identified poor.

Begari Laxmamma, a community filmmaker and a community seed keeper, pointed out that all these villages have their own community seed banks from which any farmer can borrow nearly 50-80 seed varieties. Thousands of women in these villages have their own household seed banks and never depend upon outside seeds. Thus these villages have become seed sovereign.

Thammali Manjula, filmmaker and a coordinator of the Community Food Sovereignty programme, says “Our films have nothing dramatic but depict our lives and it’s about how we conquered hunger.”

J B S Umanadh in Hyderabad

Blinkered focus on cereals

22 June 2012 – A national consultation of health experts has called for a stop to the history of bad science and misconceived advice that has long dominated India’s nutrition policies. They stress the need to “put nutrition back into our food” and understand what it would mean to initiate comprehensive policies that enable the healthy survival of India’s children.

The government’s effort to combat India’s malnutrition crisis has long focused on providing cereals, in the belief that the body only needs calories – energy rich foods – to grow and survive. This erroneous thinking is severely damaging the health of India’s poor, who are slipping deeper into a malnutrition crisis, warns Veena Shatrugna, former Deputy Director, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

Dr. Shatrugna was on a panel of health experts speaking at a national consultation on India’s malnutrition crisis, organised by the Mumbai-based Narottam Sekhsari Foundation, a private funding agency that works in the field of health and education. The foundation has recently released its comprehensive document on issues linked to malnutrition in India, which is based on two national consultative workshops with a panel of health experts, a review of existing literature, and research into the missing policy linkages.

Historically, India presents an example of what can go wrong when ‘experts’ cross their academic disciplines and draw interpretations from narrowly focused scientific studies, Dr. Shatrugna says. In the absence of a broad reading and understanding of the wider issue, these experts fail to read the small print on scientific studies and make erroneous recommendations. The consequence of this approach, seen over the past 60 years in India, is the serious compromise of metabolic function and rising indices of malnutrition. Children’s bodies are shrinking in height and weight, due to the severe food deficiency they suffer from.

According to Dr. Shatrugna, about 33 per cent of men and 36 per cent of women have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 18.5 in India, while seven per cent have BMI below 16.0. BMI is a measure of weight for height, and any figure below 18.5 is considered to be unhealthy. BMI values below 16 are unheard of even in Sub-Saharan Africa, she says.

Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organisation, almost 50 per cent of Indian children, who suffer severe deficits in weight and height, are in this condition because of food deprivation. In Maharashtra, a relatively developed State, questions raised in the December 2011 Assembly session led to the revelations that 65 infants are dying each day, with 13,683 infant deaths occurring between January to September 2011, raising questions about the abysmal nutrition status of mothers. (According to official figures around 7.4 lakh births were recorded during this corresponding period). Despite this the State government remains in denial of its looming malnutrition crisis.

The anomalies in deciding the right nutrition go back to the years of the British Raj. In 1937 British experts analyzed and gave nutritive value to over 300 foods, classifying them under calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, etc. (Government publication, Health Bulletin No. 23(5), 1937, 1st edition). It was recognized by then that some foods like cereals (rice, wheat), potatoes, sugar, are concentrated sources of calories, but most other foods contain multiple nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals, along with calories.

The anomalies in deciding the right nutrition go back to the days of the British Raj. (Pic: A tribal village in Bastar, a part of the central Indian tribal crescent: Children under five years are paying the heaviest price, with high mortality and morbidity due to malnutrition.) 

•  The way we used to eat
•  Adding millets to the food basket

During the Second World War in the 1940s, the colonial government diverted food to the war front, causing dire food shortages in India, including the ‘great Bengal famine’. Reflecting the “great confidence of science”, nutrition experts at that time came up with a book: The Nutritive value of Indian foods and the planning of satisfactory diets. This speaks of the calorie requirements of different populations – based on the nature of their work and activity. The text however, stresses, “…it is important to plan a diet which first provides foods rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins, iron and other nutrients and then fill the calorie gap with cereals, potatoes, sugar etc.”

This basic rule was unfortunately forgotten by the colonial masters, as also by subsequent governments in Independent India. From the late 1940s onwards, government food programmes have focused on cereals, which are high in calories, and – perhaps more importantly – a cheap source of energy for the poor. “There was no pause to consider the non-cereal portion of the diet, which provides most of the essential nutrients in requisite amounts”, Dr. Shatrugna says.

During the late 60s, when famine raged in some parts of the country, many ‘giants’ in nutrition claimed that if people eat enough calories, they get to consume sufficient protein – tissue, muscle and bone building nutrients – as well. But there is a fatal flaw in this thinking. Such ‘macro’ food sources do not provide the ‘micro’ nutrients – vitamins and minerals – which contain enzymes needed for physiological function of the body. In planning diets, the first requirement is proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. The need for carbohydrate-rich foods that fulfil energy requirements follows thereafter.

“The planners and scientists, with their own Nehruvian tryst with destiny, were in a hurry and ignored the small print in the studies. Indians lost the war even before it started. It was our own government – which looked up to science more than the people it governed – that took away the right to food, scientifically”, Dr. Shatrugna says.

The dietary recommendations of the planners, meanwhile emphasised vegetarian food and homogeneity for the whole nation, overlooking the varied cultural and regional differences across the country, where many eat meat. The plans also overlooked the question of how many Indians can bring balance to their daily diet when they cannot afford to buy dal and the two or three vegetables needed to accompany their rice or roti.

Foisting a diet based on a laboratory understanding of nutrition, the government’s public food support programmes and its agriculture policies have thus condemned the poor to eat a monotonous daily diet of cereals that are of limited nutrition value.

Hailing from the upper caste and class, these planners overlooked the fact that their own children ate a balanced diet rich in a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, milk and its products, nuts, sprouts, seeds, apart from cereals. They did not conceive a reality where the poor only ate a cereal with chillies and tamarind water. A diet consisting of bajra roti and chutney has calories and fibre. But if foods rich in proteins and vitamins are not included in the diet, the calories merely get converted into fat.

A cereal-based diet takes no account of the special needs of growing children, pregnant and lactating women. Children for instance, have small stomachs and seek to eat a variety of food in small quantities through the day. A sesame seed ladoo of around 250 grams could be a highly nutritive meal in itself for a child. But India’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) only offers one meal of khichdi (rice and dal) every day, without variation.

Even during the 1960s top nutritionists failed to reflect on how poor children could sustain themselves on a diet of mere cereals. Even if a child ate cereals for the whole day it would not get adequate calories from such a diet.

“By then it was well known that children needed fat in their diet, and many middle class mothers added a small dollop of ghee to their children’s daily diet. These children were also offered variety through fruit, egg and milk. The children of the poor, however, had to make do with low-cost, scientific choices and not crave any of these foods, as a sacrifice to the nation”, Dr. Shatrugna says.

As a result of this over-emphasis on calories India’s poor now face a massive inadequacy of minerals and vitamins, leading to the diagnosis of “micro-nutrient deficiencies”. This has given rise to the lobbies that argue endlessly over macro or micro nutrients. Taking advantage of this scenario is the multi-million dollar micro-nutrient industry that vociferously lobbies to sell its pre-packaged, ready-to-eat foods, vitamin tablets, fortified or genetically modified foods, amongst others chemical-laden products, to the government food programme for malnourished children.

In Narsapur Mandal, Medak district of Andhra Pradesh the community was sensitised to the domestic and economic value of nutrition gardening – growing dark green leafy vegetables, yellow-orange fruits and vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruits. At the end of six years, up to 90 per cent of households saw its health value for their children, and were growing these foods. Women farmers here are responding to diversification from water-intensive paddy and sugarcane cultivation to nutritionally relevant horticulture after receiving training and support, the study reports. 

•  The way we used to eat
•  Adding millets to the food basket

Synthetic Supplements

Instead of focusing on improving household diets with a basket of nutritious foods like green leafy vegetables, seasonal fruits, sprouts, nuts and seeds, not just wheat and rice, the government programmes are increasingly looking at quick technology fix solutions to under-nutrition. But experts say synthetically produced, single nutrient fortification of food, vitamin tablets, or ready-to-eat packaged foods cannot combat overall macro and micro nutrient deficiencies and can even cause harm.

For instance, unsupervised mass pumping of vitamin-A tablets along with polio immunisation, especially amongst malnourished or sick children, is known to cause fatalities. In a mass campaign where the object is to achieve targets and “capture” children, such supervision is scarce and fatalities will occur, leading to an erosion of faith in government sponsored programmes.

The tendency towards quick fix solutions is evident in government’s encouragement to industry to fortify cereals with synthetically produced iron and zinc. In Gujarat, for instance, wheat flour is being fortified with iron, despite the fact that wheat is rich in phytates which inhibit iron absorption. (Phytates are phosphorus compounds found primarily in cereal grains, legumes and nuts. They bind with minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc and interfere with iron absorption). Furthermore, the marketing of fortified wheat flour is pushing small enterprises such as chhakis (small flour mills) out of business.

“Micro-nutrient fortification of our food is going to create a nutrition mess and the body will face a new range of burdens and problems. It will foreclose any attempts to improve the diets of children, both qualitative and quantitative”, Dr. Shatrugna says. While such measures may be warranted in short-term crisis situations, it is not normal and the bulk of our efforts must be geared towards the long-term goal of putting enough of real food on the plates of our poor, she says.

NGOs at the workshop criticised the Maharashtra government programme of purchasing corporate produced, ready-to-eat packaged foods for children in the ICDS programme. This programme has been challenged in a writ petition filed with the Mumbai High Court. While the State wastes large amounts of money in procuring such foodstuff of questionable value, tribal families have no taste for it. Neither has anyone shown them how to add value to it. There are other localised, cheaper and more nutritive methods of ensuring that poor households get access to food, they say.

No chemical, industrial additive, genetically modified, fortified or therapeutic food should be introduced in the health and public food programmes, the experts held. Every effort must go towards obtaining food that is fresh, wholesome and locally available. This should be encouraged through the growth of kitchen gardens and agriculture policies that provide water, promote horticulture and vegetable cultivation for local consumption.

Studies meanwhile show that green vegetables and fruits contain 40-50 bio-active chemicals vital to prevention of diseases like cancer and in arresting degenerative processes. It is not just satisfaction of hunger that we have to talk of, but nutrition education and nutrition security through food that is locally grown, fresh and wholesome. Such natural foods provide a more effective and cheaper source of folic acid, vitamin C, iron or calcium. The promotion of local kitchen gardens and large-scale food-based programmes that boost production and consumption of fruits and vegetables, needs financial and infrastructure support.

India’s rich biodiversity provides a gold mine at our doorstep. Today one-third of its fruits and vegetables perish for lack of facilities to store and conserve them. Development of agro industries could provide enormous income generation capacity for village women. The National Family Health Surveys shows high levels of anaemia in states like Punjab or Haryana where the focus of agriculture is rice and wheat. The difference is evident in Himachal Pradesh, where anaemia rates are lower because of the plentiful fruits and vegetables grown there, and are a part of the local diet.

The emphasis on small scale agro-industries in villages could focus on the production of ‘dehydrated leaf powder’ (from alpha/beta-carotene rich sources such as spinach and drumstick leaves). Pilot studies indicate its feasibility and demonstrate their good nutritive value and acceptance in the community. These products, from natural, indigenous sources, produced by local labour, could be used to “fortify” food offered to millions of children through the ongoing national supplementary feeding programme, nutritionists suggest. 

Rupa Chinai 
22 Jun 2012

Emulate DDS: Minister

Staff Reporter

Decorated bullock-carts being taken in a procession at DDS programme on bio-diversity at Pastapur in Medak on Monday. —PHOTO: MOHD ARIF
Finally, women working to protect nature and making efforts for self-sustenance under the guidance of Deccan Development Society (DDS) led by its director P.V. Satheesh, are set get due recognition.

Major Industries Minister J. Geeta Reddy, who participated as a chief guest in the concluding programme of the Bio-diversity Festival at this remote village in Medak district on Monday said that it had been decided to emulate the example of millet cultivation with organic forming across the district. The farmers from other areas would be called here and shown how to cultivate millets even in adverse weather conditions. If not, the women farmers from this area would be taken to other parts of the district to explain them on how to do it. The responsibility has been entrusted to Joint Collector A. Sharath.

It was also decided to present ‘J. Eswaribai Memorial Award’ to the women working in the DDS for sustaining the traditional crops, protecting the soil health and people’s health by supplying nutritious organic food and standing as an example to the farming community across the nation. The award would be presented on February 24 at Hyderabad by Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy.

Dr. Geeta Reddy was so impressed with what the women in her constituency were doing that she saluted them, literally.

“The nation has to learn a lot from you. You are teaching lessons to the farming community on how to face adverse weather conditions and cultivate multiple crops that will save peoples’ health as well as that of soil. This is a silent revolution that has been taking place in this remote area which needs due recognition,”’ she said. She has also felicitated some women farmers who narrated their experiences.

TNAU develops ready-to-cook pearl millet mix

Times of India, 11 February 2012

COIMBATORE: The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University has been granted a patent for producing a ready-to-cook mix from pearl millet (cumbu). The Patent Office of Chennai, Government of India, granted the first of its kind patent on January 12.

Pearl millet (cumbu in Tamil and bajra in the North) is an important millet occupying more than 55% of the global production. Because of the availability of rice in ready-to-cook form, the usage of millets has got decreased. Moreover, the traditional method of preparing food from pearl millet involves a cumbersome process, which is another reason for decline in consumption of pearl millet.

Therefore, TNAU undertook research to develop a new process for production of ready-to-cook mix and food from pearl millet. The technology has been developed by R Kailappan, professor, department of food and agricultural process engineering, TNAU.

Pearl millet is grown in over 40 countries, predominantly in Africa and Asia, where it is a staple food grain and also a source of feed, fodder and fuel. India is the largest producer of pearl millet, both in terms of area (9.1 million hectares) and production (7.3 million tonnes), with an average productivity of 780kg per hectare. Before 1990, pearl millet was the most important food grain eaten by peasants and farm labourers of South India. S Santhana Bosu, dean (agricultural engineering), stated that pearl millet is rich in fat (5%), protein (11.8%) and minerals like calcium and iron and vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin and niacin.

R Viswanathan, professor and head, department of food and agricultural process engineering, TNAU, expressed that traditional way of preparing food from pearl millet is a tedious process.

Viswanathan said that the drudgery involved in this age-old process has been solved by this patented technology, whereby the pearl millet has been processed, packaged and made available in the form of ready-to-cook mix similar to rice.

The rancidity problem has been solved by this new processing technology, whereby the ready-to-cook mix can be stored for 15 to 20 days at normal room temperature. Those interested in purchasing the rights for the technology for commercial use may contact: the director (Agri Business Development), Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore – 641 003. Phone: 0422 – 6611377.

Adding millets to the basket

To improve food security and to bring extensive lands now left fallow into cultivation again, the government must support millets just as it supports rice and wheat. Karuna M reports.

31 December 2011 – Recently, IIT-Delhi and the University of Allahabad carried out a survey of the Public Distribution System (PDS) across nine states in India. More than 1200 people living in small villages across the country were interviewed. A number of findings from this survey are noteworthy, in light of recent demands to ‘reform’ the food security system in the country.

The survey found that the PDS is functioning remarkably well even in states where it was dismal in the recent past. Most people were getting nearly all their quota of grain and were satisfied with the functioning of their ration shops. Most of them preferred to get their entitlements from the ration shop rather than receive cash – as has been proposed in the recent draft of the Food Security Bill.

One of the questions in the survey was whether the respondent would be willing to buy grains like Finger Millet (ragi), Pearl Millet (bajra), Sorghum (jowar) or Corn (makka) if these were made available in the ration shops. An overwhelming 79 per cent of the respondents said ‘yes’ in reply to this question (see Table for state-wise data).

People are very aware of the benefits of these nutritious grains, and feel that eating these grains will enable them to work well and be healthy. Millets have been eaten for a very long time and were probably the first cultivated foods. A recent archaeological excavation in China found 4000 year old noodles made of foxtail millet. In India too, people used to eat these grains in the past, but with the shift in agricultural practices and government support to rice and wheat, their eating patterns also shifted. But if these grains were to be made available in the ration shops, they would gladly consume them again.

Millets were referred to as coarse cereals but considering their nutritional values, they are now more aptly called nutritious cereals. In spite of the steady economic growth over the last 20 years, India has not been able to tackle the nutritional crisis faced by a large part of the population. The third National Family Health Survey revealed that in 2005-6 more than 40 per cent of children in the age group 0-3 were underweight. More than 70 per cent of children in 6-35 month age group were found to be anemic. More than one-third of adult women were underweight and more than half of them were anemic.

Millets have been eaten for a very long time and were probably the first cultivated foods. (Photo: NREGA workers in Kulathupatty panchayat, Dindigul district in Tamilnadu say ‘yes’ to millets in ration shops.) •  The way we used to eat
•  Cash trasfers and food security

While the reasons for this dismal state of nutrition are many, including poverty and great inequality, the consumption of a more diverse diet rather than just white rice (polished rice) and wheat could help alleviate this.

Pearl Millet and Barnyard Millet contain nearly 10 times the amount of iron as in white rice. Finger Millet contains about 10 times more calcium than white rice; calcium is very important for growing children and older people. Millets are whole grains containing a higher percentage of fiber compared to white rice and maida. Fiber lowers blood cholesterol levels and helps control blood sugar levels. These benefits of millets have become so well known in cities that companies have started marketing multi-grain biscuits and flours containing millets in a big way.

Food inflation in India is very high (around 9 per cent currently) and it disproportionately affects the poor who spend hearly half their income on food. One way to bring this down would be to increase cereal cultivation in fallow lands. Millets are the best cereals to be grown, as they are hardy crops requiring very little water and can grow even in relatively poor soils.

Rice and wheat growers receive much help including subsidies for irrigation (building of dams, canals, electricity for pumping underground water) and fertilizers, government procurement of produce, and extension services. On the other hand, dry land millet farmers are mostly left to fend for themselves. Because millet farmers work in difficult lands, their yields and incomes tends to be lower, and many of them choose to leave their lands fallow. In the long run, this will lead to soil erosion and desertification. Hence the case for subsidising millet growers is strong – to improve food security, and to maintain the fertility of lands. Procuring millets for distribution in the PDS will be a big first step to support millet growers.

Distributing millets in the PDS would also help strengthen the PDS system itself. Local procurement and distribution of millets, as opposed to the current practice of centralised procurement of rice and wheat, and then transporting these to far-off places, would help reduce transportation and storage costs. The procurement price of millets is substantially lower than that of rice or wheat (though one could argue that it should be higher) thereby reducing the subsidy provided to consumers. One argument that is put forward against universalization of the PDS is that there is not enough grain for procurement by the government – adding millets to the procurement basket would help address this.

People want the PDS to be strengthened, and millets to be made available in their ration shops – of this there is no doubt. Promoting millet cultivation and making them available in ration shops, mid-day meals and child-care centers will address our nutritional crisis, strengthen rural livelihoods, and reduce price inflation of cereals. Will the government listen?

Policy Brief on Future Outlook and Options for Target Crops: The Sorghum and Pearl millet economy of India

Policy Brief on Future Outlook and Options for Target Crops: The Sorghum and Pearl millet economy of India download

More  than  60  percent  of  the  area  in  India  is  cultivated  under  arid  and  semiarid conditions  which  provide  around  40  percent  of  the  food  production.  Farmers  here  are exposed  to  harsh  agro  climatic  conditions,  as  they  have  to  cultivate  shallow  and  poor  soils, under  drought  prone  conditions  receiving  low  and  erratic rainfall  below  600  mm.  Recurrent drought  coupled  with  frequent  dry  spells  further  exacerbate  the  situation.  In  the  last  few decades  these  regions  are  facing  a  shrinking  natural  resource  base  and  land  degradation, resulting  in  low  productivity  in  crop  and  livestock  sector.  This  in  turn  is  contributing  to poverty,  malnutrition  and indebtedness  of  small  holder  farm  families.  More  than  70  per cent of the land holdings belong to small and marginal farmers (below 2ha), which is further shrinking  due  to  extensive  subdivision  and  fragmentation  of  holdings  constraining mechanization and scale economies. The resulting drudgery and impoverishment of farmers and farm women are  apparent.