Drought May Turn Millet Into American Staple Food

The only time most people in the US see put millet when they put it in the birdfeeder, but University of California, Berkeley researcher Amrita Hazra says we ought to start eating it ourselves.

Hazra and her colleagues on the Millet Project are cultivating millets, testing millet recipes, and offering samples of millet-based products at local food events and exhibits.

Millet is a grain crop that’s been a staple food for humans in many parts of the world. In the United States, millet varietiess are mostly used in grain mixes for various kinds of birds, and they’re also forage crops for cattle and poultry.

Today, despite being lesser known in Western society, millets are widely cultivated and consumed in many countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria) and Asia (India, China).

Before the popularity of rice, corn, and wheat, millet was a staple food, especially in the semi-arid regions of South and East Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. In China, records of domestication of foxtail millet and proso millet date back to approximately 10,000 years ago.

Inherently Drought-tolerant

The five millet species commonly grown as commercial crops ar:

    • Proso
    • Foxtail
    • Pearl
    • Japanese barnyard
    • Browntop

There are also many other types.

The drought in California is in its fourth year and has brought growers, consumers, policymakers, and food activists together. Millets are robust dryland crops—many millet varieties are inherently drought-tolerant.

Millets also are nutritious whole grains that are gluten-free. Different members of the millet family contain different portfolios of nutrients—millet grains often contain lower carbohydrates as compared to rice, corn, or wheat, and higher levels of proteins, fiber, and certain minerals such calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and iron.

Millets can be grown from seed quite easily at higher temperatures, can grow in skeletal soils and seldom require synthetic fertilizers. They have a short growing period of 100 to 110 days from seed to grain, and as a result are commonly used as rotation crops between the growth of the other crops. Most millet grains are not easily affected by storage pests.

Is California The Perfect Place To Grow Millets?

California is in a drought. Given that a large percentage of the state’s water goes toward agriculture, growing drought-tolerant crops such as millets is a natural first step to diversify agriculture.

The idea is to have small portions of a variety of foods to keep a sustained intake of nutrients and micronutrients. But in the United States, growers are mainly cultivating monocultures of a few types of crops, and this is reflected on supermarket shelves and on our plates—big portions of a very small variety of food crops.

Introducing diversity in agriculture in California will be a big step and a model for changing the mindsets of growers and consumers in other parts of the country.

The movement has begun—the United Nations recently noted that 2016 will be the “International Year of the Pulses” (beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas), the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization declared quinoa as the grain of the year in 2013, and the Whole Grains Council has celebrated millet and teff (a cereal grain native to northeastern Africa, also a minor millet) as a grain of the month.

Read more about the Millet Project on their website.

Photo: Katrin Gilger/flickr