The beer is flowing and the snack plates piling up at a bustling bar in Mumbai’s trendy Bandra neighbourhood on what would be an ordinary Sunday pub night, except for one detail: everything served up is made from or centred around millets.
There’s even a pub trivia quiz devoted to questions about the humble millet, a long-forgotten but environmentally sustainable cereal.
“It’s nice that someone is actually trying to revive and let people learn all about [millets],” said one of the bar’s patrons, Annisha Duggal. “Through beer and tasty food,” which, she added with a laugh, is the only way to get young people to pay attention to an old grain.
The ancient seed, once a staple in Indian cooking and agriculture before being superseded by rice, is also at the centre of a massive promotional campaign launched by the Indian government.
Officials even persuaded the United Nations to declare 2023 the “International Year of Millets,” to coincide with the year India was serving as host of the G20 summit.
The healthy and hardy cereal, which thrives in arid and difficult conditions in which other crops cannot survive and requires less water, is being touted as a “superfood” that could force a more nutritious diet on India’s population, and also help mitigate the devastating effects of climate change on the South Asian country.
At the Mumbai bar, Nakul Bhosle is overseeing the pulling of pints of his brewery’s offerings, made from sugar extracted from millets instead of malted barley.
It was a conscious decision for the brewery Great State Aleworks in the city of Pune to learn how to work with the cereal.
“As a craft brewery, we love experimenting and doing new things and pushing the boundaries,” he told CBC News, describing how it took a year of research and development to figure out the best method to process the raw, unmalted millet seeds.
But he was determined.
“The thing about millets is, they grow in our state with less water, no fertilizer, no pesticides. They’re hardy crops,” said Bhosle, whose family’s farming roots partly inspired his desire to contribute to the millet revival.
“They grow naturally, but there’s no demand for it because it’s all about wheat and rice,” he added. “So it became an opportunity for us to give farmers a source of demand. To [have farmers] grow millets and for us to use the millets.”
That demand is being felt deep in the rural part of Maharashtra state, where Balu Ghode leads his wife and several hired labourers to the fields at dawn to seed the land with different varieties of millet.
To cultivate the ancient cereal, they also use traditional tricks passed down through generations, such as chopping onions to mix with the millet seeds before they are planted to ward off ants and other pests once in the soil.
Rice is still the dominant crop in the state’s Nashik area known for its agricultural output, but millets are slowly gaining ground.
On Ghode’s farm near Bari village, 60 per cent of his land is used for millets, while the remaining 40 per cent is reserved for rice.
Stooping to throw the seeds around his freshly raked field, the farmer told CBC News that millets are by far the more cost-effective crop he grows, since they require little effort and far less water than rice.
“It can be sold directly off the farm at market, and you get money on the spot,” the 46-year old farmer said, adding that the millet harvest also falls around a particularly costly time of year: Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
“For eating and for the money we make from it, millet is the best here.”
Many of his fellow farmers abandoned the millet their forefathers had grown for decades in favour of rice in the 1960s, during India’s Green Revolution, when the government pushed high-yield varieties of rice and wheat to rapidly increase food production in the country.
“Rice was fetching a better price,” remembered 60-year old farmer Kashinath Chendu Khole. “There was no market for ragi millet so everyone switched to rice,” he said, referring to a popular variety of the cereal.
It was a decision aided by the aggressive subsidies the government offered to farmers choosing to prioritize rice or wheat. The millet also developed a reputation as a “coarse” and less refined cereal, mainly for the poor to eat.
But now, local farmers are turning back to the forgotten seed as demand starts to increase. They often gather at the local seed bank set up by an NGO, which hands out free millet seeds for farmers to try.
“People did not know the benefits of millet before,” said Akka Popat Ghode, 30, who is also a farmer in Bari village.
“It is good for your health, with lots of calcium, and it’s also beneficial to sell locally,” she said.
Her family has even invested in a millet-refining machine. For a small fee, her neighbours can use it and double the price they get for their cereal crop at the local market.
At a large millet expo on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi this past June, the goal was to capitalize on that slow but steady resurgence of the humble seed, with dozens of booths set up by small businesses or local government agencies determined to talk up millets.
One of them is manned by employees of Millets for Health, a company that makes crackers and cookies made from the cereal, while billing itself as devoted to “the revival of millets — the ancient Indian Super Food.”
Its co-founder Pallavi Upadhyaya was squarely focused on the power of millets to tackle climate change, “a reality that’s staring us in the face.”
Government campaign paying off locally
“Going back to indigenous methods like millets is so helpful,” she said, not just for India but the entire globe struggling to bring down greenhouse gas emissions with crops that can thrive without a lot of water, pesticides or fertilizers.
Upadhyaya said her business has seen a boost this year because of the government’s promotional campaign.
“All of this noise and the entire ecosystem really coming together to push it,” she said, had a big impact.
The noise was loud and persistent, coming primarily from Indian officials anxious to position the country as a global hub for millets, and hoping to spark a health-food craze for gluten-free millets, similar to what happened with kale or quinoa.
As the world’s largest producer of millets and its second-largest exporter of the nutritious seed that can grow in the harshest of conditions, the country stands to benefit if the millet trend catches on.
“India is at the forefront of popularizing millets whose consumption furthers nutrition, food security, and the welfare of farmers,” the country’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, pronounced during her February budget speech, to resounding applause in parliament.
G20 leaders served millet
Indian officials took advantage of the G20’s platform and numerous meetings to set up millet tables highlighting dishes made with the seed, a tactic also embraced by every fancy hotel in Delhi that hosted delegates during the leader’s summit in September.
The seed also made a prominent mark on the menu at the event’s gala dinner hosted by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who offered global leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, dishes featuring crispy millet leaves and cardamom-infused millet pudding.
It was a move applauded by many already on board the millet popularity train.
“Millets are very, very important … [and] the government finally is interested in learning more about the positive qualities,” said Vijaya Raghavan, a professor at Montreal-based McGill University’s Department of Bioresource Engineering.
After tossing the cereal aside during the Green Revolution, the Indian government’s current embrace of the neglected millet is a positive sign, the professor said, even if he believes the enthusiasm should come with more than just a marketing campaign.
“A [millet] subsidy would help the farmers … stay competitive in their production area,” Raghavan said.
Without one, he added, more and more farmers might find it “difficult to make both ends meet,” especially considering the major subsidies attached to growing rice and wheat in many parts of the country.
Monetary support for farmers to adopt millets would help some in the Nashik area of Maharashtra, where Balu Khade was spending a Monday morning cajoling his reluctant oxen to keep plowing his field.
He said his family doesn’t have the luxury of moving toward the millet, with rice already taking up all of the land they have to till.
“I would grow millet if I had the space but I don’t,” Khade said, even though rice uses far more precious resources like water and requires significant investment in pesticides and fertilizers.
His neighbours, he added wistfully, get a solid price at the local market with the different varieties of millets they are now cultivating, as the trend for the sustainable cereal starts to take off.