Vandana Shiva: ‘Millets have become forgotten foods’

An early proponent, the activist says the future of the cereal is in the hands of small farmers.

Published : Jan 26, 2023 10:35 IST

Vandana Shiva founded RFSTE, an organisation committed to developing sustainable methods of agriculture. 

Vandana Shiva founded RFSTE, an organisation committed to developing sustainable methods of agriculture.  | Photo Credit: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Scientist, ecologist, author, and farming rights activist Vandana Shiva is known for her trailblazing work in preserving India’s agricultural heritage. Three decades ago, Shiva founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), an organisation committed to developing sustainable methods of agriculture. In 1991, she founded Navdanya, a movement to conserve indigenous and robust seeds. A strong critic of the Green Revolution, Shiva maintains that the aim of the revolution, which was to increase food security, instead led to several traditional seeds becoming extinct, loss of agricultural legacy, and extensive damage to soil and environment due to chemicals.

An early proponent of millets, Shiva speaks to Frontline in the background of 2023 being declared the International Year of Millets by the United Nations.

The UN’s declaration that 2023 will be the International Year of Millets will unleash the potential of this neglected super food. How do you see this?

Millets have become forgotten foods. At Navdanya, we have been working for more than three decades to transform millets from forgotten foods to foods for the future. We call them Bhoole Bisre Anaaj [long forgotten grains]. We are glad the UN announced 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Driving millets as a super food will benefit the farmer.

India is a leading producer in the world of most millets. But it hasn’t pushed millets the way it has pushed sugarcane, cotton or rice. Why?

Millets were the staple crops in all parts of India except the water-abundant regions where rice was the primary crop. It is the British who imposed a plantation culture of sugarcane and cotton, eroding our agriculture of diversity and local processing. Millets had over time disappeared from the Indian diet and from farmers’ fields. It is the work by movements such as Navdanya and other farmers organisations that saved the seeds of millets and encouraged farmers to grow these crops.

Could you speak about the merits of millets?

To start with, millets need very little water to grow, which makes them an answer to the perennial water crisis. Being nutritionally denser than rice and wheat, millets are an answer to the malnutrition crisis. And being efficient in photosynthesis and able to produce biomass without external fossil fuel-based inputs, they are the answer to the climate crisis.

Could you give us a perspective on the shift in cropping patterns that led to crops such as millets not being given the importance they deserve?

When the Green Revolution was imposed on India in the 1960s, chemical-intensive monocultures of rice and wheat became the dominant cropping pattern. They demanded ten times more water than local varieties. The Green Revolution was a cultural war against millets. Millets were named “primitive” crops and “coarse” grains even though they were more nutritious than the rice and wheat varieties being introduced, used much less water, and could grow on poor and marginal soils.

The Public Distribution System shifted our diets predominantly to rice and wheat. The cultural defining of millets as inferior was also based on the projection of white as superior and dark as inferior. Because the flour of millets is dark, an element of food racism was introduced, promoting nutritionally empty, polished white rice and refined wheat flour in the food system. The consequence of all this is the disease and nutrition crisis we face, along with the disappearance of the biodiversity of millets from our fields.

Punjab, for instance, was a land of jowar, bajra, makai. Today, it only grows rice in the kharif season and wheat in the rabi season. The disappearance of millets is a result of the colonisation of our food and agriculture systems. That is why we promote millets as central to our seed and food sovereignty movements.

There was an effort to promote millets in 2011-12 through the Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millet Promotion (INSIMP), but activists say it was a flawed programme. Your thoughts?

The INSIMP programme was flawed because it copied the chemical-intensive monocultures of the Green Revolution by introducing chemicals and hybrid seeds, thus increasing the costs of production and reducing nutrition.

INSIMP was based on giving input kits with urea and pesticides; costing Rs.2,000-3,000 depending on the type of crop; and seed kits comprising hybrid seeds to the farmers. Since millets are grown by marginal communities in marginal areas, introducing costly inputs like urea and hybrid seeds, which are non-renewable and have to be bought every year, was a non-suitable and inequitable programme.

Will this push at the international level have an effect on India’s agrarian landscape? Specifically, will enhanced millet production help the small farmer and small landholding patterns? What kind of support will farmers require?

The International Year of Millets is a consequence of the work done in India. The push at the international level is useful as it removes the biases of the Green Revolution in the UN and promotes more integration between biodiversity, agroecology, nutrition, and health. At this moment, the UN system is being hijacked by global corporations that benefit from industrial agriculture and the promotion of ultra-processed junk food. The UN Food Summit which was always organised in Rome by the Food and Agriculture Organisation was taken to New York, co-organised with World Economic Forum, Crop Life, and Gates Foundation.

The future of millets is in the hands of small farmers by regenerating their farming systems and food systems, their knowledge and food cultures. The support small farmers need from the state isfor it toprocure millets for the Public Distribution System and for programmes such as ICDS and Mid-Day Meal schemes for vulnerable populations. A fair Minimum Support Price (MSP) and public procurement will go a long way to rejuvenate millets and bring livelihood security to small farmers and nutritional security to the poor. Those with purchasing power and awareness are already making the shift. The last time I was in Bangalore, I was told there are 500 shops that sell millets.

Looking beyond the optics of political leaders eating millet-based food at government events, do you feel a comprehensive and cohesive policy is currently in place to promote these grains?

The Green Revolution had already separated production and consumption, and displaced millets. The global system driven by billionaires and corporations is leading to more fragmentation, bigger monocultures, and the dystopia of “farming without farmers” and “food without farms”. In this context, I do not see a comprehensive and cohesive policy in place to put millets at the centre of the food and agriculture system.

What kind of model will be suited for millets? Cooperatives, farm producer companies?

The model developed in Navdanya is:

1. Save, share, and multiply the seeds of millets through community seed banks.

2. Create farmer-producer groups. In Navdanya they are called Anna Swaraj groups. Women’s groups are called Mahila Anna Swaraj Samoohs.

3. Introduce small-scale processing at village level to ensure that the value-added product becomes part of a circular economy.

4. Create distribution networks so that millets can reach consumers, but through the market and by public procurement.

5. Celebrate millet festivals, both traditional and new, to rejuvenate the culture of millets.

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