Mother of Grains: what millet teaches us about biodiversity

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Hardy, nutritious crops like millets were once commonplace on farms and plates. Research shows that by bringing back these “neglected and underutilized species” to diversify food systems, we can reap benefits ranging from climate resilience to healthier diets.

By: Yosef Gebrehawaryat, Jai Rana, Eliot Gee

Have you met the Poaceae family?

Made up of pearl, foxtail, proso, barnyard, little, kodo, browntop, finger and Guinea millets, plus fonio, sorghum, and teff,  this varied group of cereals is the subject of the International Year of Millets. The United Nations’ choice to highlight these grains- technically grasses- is fitting for 2023, when resilience is on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Traditionally appearing in diets from Sub-Saharan Africa to China, millets have long grown in arid or unforgiving landscapes. Besides being cooked as a staple grain useful with any meal, millets have been frequently turned into porridge, bread, and beer.

Yet with the consolidation of contemporary diets around the staples of rice, wheat, and maize, millets have vanished from many parts of the world where they once thrived. Ironically, these crops are being phased out at the precise moment when they are most needed.

India spotlights ‘mother of grains’

The world’s largest producer of millet (over 10 million tons annually) refers to the crop as “Shree Anna”: the mother of all grains. This designation by the Indian government reflects its hope to position the crop as an agent of holistic change, for rural farmers in need of income as well as urban consumers seeking healthier food options.

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