Farmers like Nyamukunguvengu in developing countries are at the forefront of a project proposed by India that has led the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to declare 2023 “The Year of Millet”, an effort to build a strong and to revive a healthy harvest. cultivated for millennia – but was largely pushed aside by European settlers who favored maize, wheat and other grains.
The clue comes at the right time: last year much of East Africa was ravaged by drought; war between Russia and Ukraine wiped out supplies and raised prices of food and fertilizer from Europe’s granary; concerns increased about the environmental impact of global shipments of agricultural products; many chefs and consumers are trying to diversify their diets in an age of overly standardized dishes.
All of that has given new impetus to locally grown and alternative grains and other staples like millet.
Millets come in multiple varieties, such as finger millet, fonio, sorghum, and teff, which is used in the spongy injera bread familiar to fans of Ethiopian cuisine. Proponents praise millets for their health benefits — they can be rich in protein, potassium and B vitamins — and most varieties are gluten-free. And they’re versatile: use in everything from breads, cereals and couscous to puddings and even beer.
Millet has been grown around the world over the centuries — in places like Japan, Europe, America and Australia — but their epicenters have traditionally been India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, said Fen Beed, team leader at FAO for rural and urban crop and mechanization systems.
Many countries realized that they “should go back and look at what is indigenous to their agricultural heritage and what could be reconsidered as a possible substitute for what would otherwise be imported – which is at risk when we have had a pandemic, or when we have the likes of conflict,” Beed said.
Millets are more tolerant of poor soils, drought and harsh growing conditions, easily adapting to different environments without high levels of fertilizers and pesticides. They don’t require nearly as much water as other grains, making them ideal for places like Africa’s arid Sahel region, and their deep roots from varieties like fonio can help reduce desertification, the process that turns fertile soil into desert, often as due to drought or deforestation.
“Fonio is nicknamed Lazy Farmers crop. It’s that easy to grow,” says Pierre Thiam, chef and co-founder of New York-based fine-casual food chain Teranga, which focuses on West African cuisine. “When the first rain comes, all the farmers have to do is go out and throw just like the seeds of fonio… They hardly till the soil.”
“And it’s also a fast-growing crop: it can be fully grown in two months,” he said, acknowledging that it’s not all easy: “Processing fonio is very difficult. You have to remove the skin before it becomes edible.”
Millets account for less than 3% of the global grain trade, according to the FAO. But cultivation is growing in some arid areas. In the Rushinga district, the land under millet has almost tripled in the last ten years. The UN’s World Food Program deployed dozens of threshing machines in the previous season and provided seed packs and training to 63,000 small-scale farmers in drought-prone areas.
Low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, due in part to climate change, coupled with poor soils, have reduced interest in water-consuming maize.
“You will find that those who have grown maize are the ones seeking food aid, those who have grown sorghum or pearl millet are still eating their small grains,” said Melody Tsoriyo, the district’s agronomist, referring to small grains such as millet. whose seeds can be as fine as sand. “We expect small grains to overtake corn in five years.”
Government teams in Zimbabwe have fanned out to remote rural areas, where they inspect crops and provide expert assistance, such as via WhatsApp groups to spread technical knowledge to farmers.
WFP spokesperson Tatenda Macheka said millet “helps us reduce food insecurity” in Zimbabwe, where about a quarter of people in the country of 15 million – long a breadbasket of southern Africa – are now food insecure, meaning they don’t know for sure where their next meal will come from.
In urban areas of Zimbabwe and far beyond, restaurants and hotels have taken the newfound impression that a millet meal offers a touch of class, and have made it more expensive on their menus.
Thiam, the American chef, recalled eating fonio as a child in Senegal’s southern Casamance region, but worried that it wasn’t often available in his hometown — the capital — let alone New York. He admitted that he once had “naive” dreams of turning what is known in rural Senegal as “the grain of kingship” – served to honor visiting guests – into a “world-class crop”.
He has reduced those ambitions somewhat, but he still sees a future for the small grains.
“It’s really amazing that you can have a grain like this that has been ignored for so long,” Thiam said in an interview from his home in El Cerrito, California, where he moved to be close to his wife and her family. “It’s time we integrate it into our diet.”
Keaten reported from Geneva. Haven Daley in El Cerrito, California contributed to this report.
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