Research Spotlight

Can Millets Solve India’s Nutrition Security Problems?

The Indian School of Business and the National Institute of Nutrition hosted an expert panel discussion on 16 February, 2018 to debate the introduction of millets into India’s Public Distribution System.

Millets-Jowar, Bajra, and Ragi-are gaining popularity in India’s affluent circles due to their perceived medical and nutritional benefits. These coarse grains were once part of the staple diet of agrarian populations, but have now almost disappeared from rural diets. The shift might partially be traced to government-subsidised rice and wheat in the Public Distribution System (PDS). PDS was conceived to counter war-time food shortages and has existed in its current form since 1947. While variations between states exist, a below poverty line (BPL) family can register to get approximately 35 kg of food grain through the PDS. However, PDS beneficiaries often do not meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for micronutrients, such as iron and calcium, especially among women and children.

Against this backdrop, the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and the Indian School of Business (ISB) came together to explore whether millets should be added to PDS-subsidised food rations, along with wheat and rice, to address RDA gaps for many nutrients. In order to initiate the study, NIN and ISB hosted a day-long discussion on February 16, 2018 at the ISB Hyderabad campus, with an expert panel including practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and academics.

Professor Ashwini Chhatre from ISB and Dr Bharati Kulkarni from NIN set the panel thinking broadly about nutrition security. Offering a holistic perspective combining research and operations through the focus of millets, the two researchers set out an agenda for the workshop: to examine whether the current form of the PDS meets the public need. Considering the complexity of the issue, the roundtable discussion covered findings from research, policy, and implementation on aspects as varied as millet nutrition, production, procurement, distribution, and consumption.

Millet Nutrition
Dr M Raja Sriswan from the NIN discussed the nutritional value of consumed cereals, millets, and pulses. Millets provide the same energy as cereals and are a rich source of nutrients (iron, carotenoids, and protein.) However, no significant benefits were found for children’s diets. Dr N Arlappa from the NIN, on the other hand, presented findings showing that consuming more than 100 grams of millets led to better outcomes for body mass index (BMI), hypertension, and diabetes.

Two main caveats were raised. The NIN’s Dr KV Radhakrishna stated that millet consumption does not lead to significant differences in cholesterol and triglycerides levels. He listed further factors for consideration, such as millet bioavailability and low protein digestibility, on which evidence had not been presented.

Dr Purnima Menon from the International Food Policy Research Institute went further to point out that millets were being presented as a nutritional panacea, when they were, in fact, just one part of the staple food basket. Given the weak evidence regarding their nutritional value, she argued for consideration of alternatives such as dietary changes to lower the intake of cereals and increase the intake of pulses.

A key recommendation, summarised by Professor Sarang Deo from ISB, was to pursue a model- based approach to quantify the nutritional benefits for various recipes by combining millet bioavailability data with other components such as food processing through cooking.
Dr Purnima Menon recommended that the research community conduct more rigorous clinical studies to study the impact of millets on adult health outcomes, preferably in southern states where a dietary shift from rice to millets is more feasible given the cultural and historical background of diets based on millets.

Millet Production, Procurement, and Distribution
The main question for PDS policy is: what quantity of millet is being produced? How much will be demanded given certain threshold values (100 grams weekly for example)? Is production occurring in or close to states where they are being consumed?
Sanchit Makkar from St John’s Research Institute presented a state level analysis on these issues. His findings suggest that there is not enough production of millets if the daily consumption objective is 100 grams daily.
Mr Rajagopal from the Food Corporation of India (Karnataka region) brought in the government perspective, and suggested that we also pay attention to the local procurement capacity for millets and that procurement should be combined with appropriate and effective mechanisms to distribute the procured grains.
Professor Ashwini Chhatre talked about the nutritional and environmental outcomes with increased production of millets. He presented model-based simulations on various “rice replacement scenarios”, wherein the area under rice cultivation is replaced with the highest yield coarse grain cereal in every district. Results show that such replacement can lead to significant nutritional benefits—an increase in iron and reduction in phytate/iron ratio, with approximately 20 million additional individuals achieving RDA for iron. In addition, it could also have a significant positive environmental impact. Total water use and use of irrigation water would be reduced by 7% and 11% respectively, energy use would be reduced by 5% and the emission of greenhouse gases would go down by 14%.

Professor Sripad Devalkar from ISB presented an optimisation model for reducing PDS millet procurement and distribution costs. Assuming total demand for each food grain is as per existing consumption patterns, the optimisation model would provide an additional 44% more grains. Households could receive an additional 1.4 lakh tons of food grains by introducing millets into the PDS. This would lead to an average savings of ₹ 2000 per household per year.
The panellists grappled with the question of trying to create a market with supply and demand within the PDS environment, which has functioned not as a market but a distribution system. If PDS millet distribution is promised, the burden to the exchequer would need to be calculated. The government will have to deal with market price, since millets are also used for cattle feed, beer production, etc. Thus, it was felt to be worthwhile to first conduct primary analyses on issues such as millet production, usage by industry, and availability for the government before examining dietary inclusion of millets.
Other considerations
Dr Vasanthi Siruguri from NIN presented a report on foodgrain toxicity, which showed that PDS-provided millets would be more susceptible to insect and fungal infestations than rice and wheat. When not stored under proper humidity and moisture conditions, the danger of fungal infestations is high, and this increases the presence of mycotoxins that cause food poisoning in humans. Cold storage would mitigate the problem, but it is not viable owing to the year and a half gap between millet procurement and distribution. Dr Siruguri’s insights thus emphasised the need for data on grain quality degradation between procurement and distribution.
Concluding Questions
The NIN-ISB panel discussion revealed some key gaps which need to be addressed before a recommendation can be made regarding PDS millet inclusion.
From a nutrition perspective, issues about bioavailability remain. For example, which food combinations deliver optimal nutrition? From a production angle, anthropological studies and subject matter experts can help understand the farmers’ perspective. There are also questions about millet quality changes during extended storage. Finally, from a consumption perspective, the key question remains: can providing millets through the PDS tackle pressing food security issues of malnutrition?

Yogini Joglekar is an Editorial Consultant at the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. Glory George, a Research Associate at the ISB, provided inputs.