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Talking about food security and Millets at The Young Writers' Club

2023 has been designated as the year of the Millets- a grain that has been traditionally grown in India for centuries but somewhat ignored until now. The teens at the Young Writers' Club, browsed through news snippets, drew inferences based on what they have studied in school and raised questions to discover more information.

For many of us who live in cities, rice and wheat have been staple grains in our diets over generations. There have always been vagaries in production of rice and wheat. Yet somehow we manage to get our share if not more. The teens at the Young Writers’ Club are familiar with Green Revolution having studied about it in their textbooks. Green Revolution was a pathbreaking technological revolution in agriculture that helped boost the production of rice and wheat in the 1960s. This was a ray of hope in a country that had been through several droughts and food shortage.

What changed from then to now- Rice/Wheat to Millets in 2023?

The group discussions at the Young Writers’ Club began with a recently published news snippets.

Once a staple in traditional Indian cooking, millets fell out of favour over the years, and have been making a slow comeback in India and across the world. To keep this momentum going, the United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. Source: BBC, Feb.9, 2023

Rice production is estimated to be around 78 lakh tonnes, down from about 80 lakh tonnes last year. Millets and pulses are expected to be in excess this time by at least 5 lakh tonnes and about 40,000 tonnes respectively than the previous year. In view of the unseasonal rainfall in parts of the Cauvery delta, rice production may dip further. Source: The Hindu, Feb.23, 2023
Questions galore at the Young Writers’ Club & Connections made across subject areas

Note: This blogpost is an account of the group discussion that took place at the Young Writers' club this week. All the members' contributions have been recorded.

As always, when we take up a subject from the news for discussion, we think about what we know and what we don’t know. This process involves raising questions and sharing information. Any questions left unanswered are sorted and are noted down for an information hunting session.

  • Falling back on what we know to identify possible contradictions: Doesn’t rice require a lot of water? The news snippet indicates that the reason for the fall in rice production is unseasonal rainfall.

  • Indication for the future: Considering that rice production has gone down, could this be a warning? Could this be an indication of things to come? Would rice as a grain cease to exist? Could it become possible to create rice in a lab?

  • Who would be most impacted if rice as a commodity ceases to exist? Going by the fact that village folks are used to millets generation after generation, they may not feel the impact. But in urban areas, people in the South are reliant on rice and the in the North, wheat is more prevalent. Many dishes are made with these grains and substituting them with millets may distort the taste completely. Imagine Hyderabadi biryani or Bisi Bele Bath made with millets! The point about using millet instead of rice in delicacies such as the above seemed to strike a chord with all the teens.

  • Growing conditions have determined dietary patterns: Difficult to change. Wheat is widely grown in the north as the weather conditions and soil perhaps are suitable. Similarly growing conditions in the South are far more suitable in for rice cultivation. This has determined dietary patterns and recipes over generations.

  • Health vs taste: Millets are said to be far more healthy compared to rice. However, rice is far more versatile than millets, thus making multiple recipes possible.

  • In terms of Economics: If rice production falls what would be the impact on prices?

  • Prices would rise. Supply side constraints- rice seems to be a high maintenance crop thus pushing up prices.

  • Those who are used to consuming rice would continue to demand rice, pushing up prices further. Farmers too may not be willing to accept lower prices as they need to cover their costs. Lower levels of production would further result in farmer’s reluctance in reducing the price of rice.

Millets- the new hero in food grains

On one hand, rice and wheat are high maintenance crops. Millet on the other hand needs lesser water and has faster gestation periods. Traditionally farmers have grown millets in between seasons. It is said to help in replenishing the soil as well.

Preference of rice/wheat over millets

The group had very candid responses to the suggestion that millet should be a core element in their diets. The consensus was that they cannot shift to millets. They like their food the way it is now.

If the shift to millet inspite of all the promising health benefits and other advantages is next to impossible, can we solve a potential problem of food security in terms of rice and wheat in a different way?

How about using bio- technology?

Genetic modification has pros and cons. Could it have adverse impact on health? Isn’t it some sort of complete transformation of the produce by altering the DNA? We have seen examples such as seedless grapes and seedless water melons too. These don’t seemed to have had adverse effects but somehow this seems like not a suitable option.

Did you know that Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a role in agriculture too?

Precision farming: The new farm management approach uses Geopolitical Systems (GPS) and Artificial Intelligence (AI)- enabled software for precise mapping of farmlands to boost productivity. These techniques enable farmers to make the right crop choices, hybrid seed choices and choose the precise timing for sowing. These approaches help in boosting yields and maximising earnings. Many farmers are also working with startups that enable them to use technology to remotely monitor soil health, crop growth and to detect pests and diseases thus enabling prompt action as and when required. Robots, using AI and computer vision, can detect weeds and precisely spray herbicides bringing down expenditure on chemicals by 90%. Robin Age, August, 2022.
  • This could work well with the younger generation as they are more tech savvy. The older generation may find it difficult.

  • While AI could be used, it shouldn’t lead to complete automation resulting in unemployment. In other words, farmers being completely dismissed from the picture. AI should be used to collect relevant data but must not replace people.

Questions that are yet to be answered

  • Green Revolution boosted rice and wheat production. Why can’t the same technologies be used? Why the sudden emphasis on Millets?

  • What do we know about rice and wheat cultivation/production in the future given the factors we know of that seemed to be distorting production levels? Climate change and growing scarcity of water resources are factors in the present that are hard to ignore. Can we find reliable statistical data to assess if a shift to millet is absolutely necessary?

  • If we are reluctant to move to millets, can we use existing technologies to find a reliable means of enhancing rice and wheat production?

Next week, the teens at the Young Writers’ Club will be presented with more information based on which we would be discovering answers to the above questions and more.


You may also be interested in reading about an interaction we had with Shravan Shankar, Co-founder of Climake, in which he talks about millet being a climate change resilient crop. Click here to read the post.


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