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Small millets

Small millets are an often overlooked staple food for milliions living in the harshest, food-insecure regions of the developing world. They are rich in micronutrients - far more so than most rice, maize and wheat varieties – and account for about 10% of global millet production. They are extremely resilient in the face of drought and other abiotic stresses, making them valuable food security crops for millions living in marginal environments.

~10,000 - Number of small millet accessions conserved in ICRISAT-supported genebanks

5 tons/hectare - Yield potential (tons/hectare) of finger millet under optimal conditions

12.5% – Protein content of proso millet, higher than that of wheat 

Small millets consist of a about a dozen distinct species of small-seeded grasses that are grown for grain, each with their own unique traits and value. The most economically significant of these at present is finger millet, but the other small millets (including five more described below) are each in their own way important to the farmers who grow them. They are also potentially important to breeders of other cereals as sources of traits that can improve the resilience and nutritional value of those more widely grown crops.

Small millets provide staple food grain for millions of poor smallholders and households in the developing world’s harshest, most food insecure regions, such as the Sahel in Africa and in South Asia’s semi-arid zone. They also provide feed grain and fodder for livestock.

Small millets are extraordinarily tolerant of drought and other abiotic stresses, such as high temperatures and poor soils. This makes them “climate smart”, and a good source for genetic traits that can strengthen the resilience of other crops in the face of climate change. As climates get hotter and drier, small millets and the more dominant dryland cereals will become increasingly well suited for production in areas where other crops are now grown.

Millets in general provide many essential vitamins and micronutrients that can bolster nutrition for those living in dryland areas, particularly women and children. Small millets are especially rich in iron, zinc and calcium, and have other dietary qualities that can help stave off anemia, celiac disease, and diabetes. This high nutritional value – coupled with the impressive hardiness of small millets – makes them desirable food security crops, as well as a good sources of fodder and feed in mixed crop/livestock systems.

Finger millet [Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.] plays an important role in both the dietary needs and incomes of many rural households in Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asia, and accounts for about 12% of the global millet area. Finger millet is rich in fiber, iron and calcium (containing 40 times more calcium than maize and rice, and 10 times more than wheat). It is the most important small millet in the tropics and is cultivated in more than 25 countries in Africa and Asia, predominantly as a staple food grain. The major producers are Uganda, Ethiopia, India, Nepal and China.

Finger millet has high yield potential (more than 5 t/ha under optimum irrigated conditions) and its grain stores very well. Still, like most small millets, finger millet is grown mainly in marginal environments as a rainfed crop with low soil fertility and limited moisture.

The crop is native to the Ethiopian highlands and was introduced into India approximately 4,000 years ago. It is well adapted to higher elevations and is grown in the Himalayan foothills and in the East Africa highlands, up to about 2,300 meters above sea level (masl).

Major constraints to finger millet production include blast disease (caused by Pyricularia grisea, the same pathogen that causes blast disease in rice, pearl millet and many other grasses), the parasitic weed Striga, and abiotic stresses such as drought and low soil fertility.

Research opportunities to be explored include the application of genetic male-sterility as a breeding tool (to make it easier to produce F1, BCnF1, and other types of crosses) to facilitate recurrent selection to develop broad-based and more durable, host-plant resistance to blast, and to produce backcross F1 generations that are large enough to permit exploitation of background selection to hasten recovery of elite recurrent parent background in breeding programs targeting value addition to farmer- and market-preferred finger millet varieties.

The ICRISAT genebank holds nearly 6,000 finger millet germplasm accessions from 24 countries, conserved for use in research and development.

Foxtail millet [Setaria italica (L.) Beauv.] is a native of China and is one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, dating back about 7,000 years to the Yang-Shao period.

Foxtail millet ranks second in the total world production of millets and continues to have an important place in the world agriculture providing approximately six million tons of food and feed grain to millions of people, mainly on poor or marginal soils in southern Europe and in temperate, subtropical and tropical Asia. It will grow in altitudes from sea level to more than 2000 m. It cannot tolerate water logging.

Foxtail millet is fairly tolerant of drought; it can escape some droughts because of early maturity. Due to its quick growth, it can be grown as a short-term catch crop. It is adapted to a wide range of elevations, soils and temperatures. Its grain is used for human consumption and as feed for poultry and cage birds.

The ICRISAT genebank holds 1,535 foxtail millet germplasm accessions from 26 countries, which are conserved for use in research and development.

Kodo millet [Paspalum scrobiculatum L.] was domesticated in India almost 3,000 years ago. It is found across the old world in humid habitats of the tropics and subtropics. It is a minor grain crop in India and most important in the Deccan plateau.

The fiber content of the whole grain is very high. Kodo millet has around 11% protein, and the nutritional value of the protein has been found to be slightly better than that of foxtail millet, but comparable to that of other small millets. As with other food grains, the nutritive value of kodo millet protein can be improved by supplementation with legume protein.

The ICRISAT genebank holds 665 kodo millet germplasm accessions from 2 countries, conserved for use in research and development.

Little millet [Panicum sumatrense Roth. ex. Roem. & Schult.] was domesticated in India. Its weedy progenitor is P. psilopodium, and it is grown throughout India (on a limited basis) up to elevations of 2,100 masl, but is of little importance elsewhere.

Little millet is a reliable fast-growing crop that is early maturing and resistant to adverse agro-climatic conditions. Its stover is suitable for cattle. ICRISAT’s genebank maintains 473 little millet accessions from 5 countries, for use in research and development.

Proso millet [Panicum miliaceum L.] was domesticated in Manchuria and Transcaucasia about 7,000 years ago, and introduced in Europe about 3,000 years ago, followed by its introduction to the Near East and India. Proso millet is well adapted to many soil and climatic conditions. Being a short season crop with a low water requirement, it grows further north than the other millets and also adapts well to plateau conditions and high elevations. Proso millet is found high in the mountains of the former USSR (up to 1,200 masl) and in India (up to 3,500 masl).

Proso millet generally matures between 60 and 90 days after sowing and can be grown successfully in poor soils and hot dry weather. It is an easy crop to grow and it seems to be better adapted than most to primitive agricultural practices. It requires very little water, possibly the least of any cereal, and converts water very efficiently to dry matter and grain. This is not because of its drought tolerance but because of its short growing season. The ICRISAT genebank conserves 842 proso millet germplasm accessions from 30 countries for use in research and development.

Barnyard millet [Echinochloa colona (L.) Link] and [Echinochloa crus-galli (L.) P. Beauv.] were domesticated about 4,000 years ago in India and Japan, respectively.

Barnyard millet is the fastest growing of all millets, with some varieties capable of producing a crop in just six weeks. It is grown in India, Japan and China as a substitute for rice when the paddy crop fails. The plant has also attracted some attention as a fodder in the United States and Japan.

ICRISAT’s genebank holds 743 barnyard millet accessions from 9 countries, for use in research and development.

Millets in general provide many essential vitamins and micronutrients that can bolster nutrition for those living in dryland areas, particularly women and children. Small millets are especially rich in iron, zinc and calcium, and other dietary qualities that can help stave off anemia, celiac disease, and diabetes. 

Nutrients in small millets, wheat and rice 

Data from “Bhoole Bisre Anaj – Forgotten Foods”, Navdanya

Finger millet is a healthy and nutritious food and is a good income earner for poor households. However, farmers need to invest more of their time and land and integrate with markets in order to increase marketable surplus and make the crop’s production more competitive.
Members of women’s groups in Kenya being trained to make dishes (cake, mandazi, chapatti, crackies,  onion bites and porridge) from finger millet, in a bid to educate and sensitize them to the market demand for the grain and products.