Mighty Millets Have Potential for Positive Change
This year, the United Nations (UN) is on a mission to unleash the power of millets, a group of small-grain cereals with enormous potential to bring about positive changes to our health, our economies, and our planet. Tiny but mighty, millets have gone mostly overlooked in the last 50 years living in the shadows of other commercial crops such as wheat, rice, and corn. The UN declared 2023 “The Year of the Millets” to bring attention back to this group of grains. Given their ability to mitigate climate change, promote economic growth, and fight hunger, it is rightfully time for millets to shine.
What are Millets?
While many in the US might be familiar with millets only in the form of bird seed, the term “millets” actually describes a diverse group of cereal grains that includes sorghum, teff, fonio, raishan, pearl millet, proso millet, and many others. Millets have a chewy texture and a mild somewhat nutty flavor. Historically, millets were one of the first crops to be cultivated and were present in the traditional diets of many cultures throughout Sub-Sahara Africa and Asia. But the introduction of cash crops and other staple grains like wheat and rice in many regions led to a decline in millet farming over the years.
Mitigating Climate Change
Before the modernization of agriculture with the development of high yield crops, fertilizer, and technological advancements, millets were popular for the same reasons that they are considered climate-resilient today. They can be cultivated in arid climates without irrigation, are tolerant to high temperatures, and are resistant to pests and diseases. They do well in rotation with other crops and can be used for food, forage, and cover crop purposes.
Additionally, millets require minimal fertilizer inputs and emit fewer greenhouse gases compared to other cereal grains.
Nutrition and Food Security
Millets also have great potential to help address malnutrition and food insecurity. The nutrition profiles vary by type, but generally millets are higher in protein by weight compared to other popular cereal grains such as rice and corn. They are also an excellent source of fiber, with some varietals such as barnyard millet containing 13 grams of fiber per 100 gram serving. For reference, brown rice and wheat only have 1 and 2 grams of fiber per 100 gram serving, respectively. This makes millets a good choice for blood sugar management in patients with diabetes. Millets are also gluten free, providing an additional complex carbohydrate option for anyone who requires a gluten-free diet.
In terms of micronutrients, millets have the power to improve health and prevent deficiency on several fronts. For example, finger millet contains the most calcium per serving of any cereal grain. More generally, millets are also a good source of potassium, iron, magnesium and phosphorous. A recent systematic review found that regular consumption of millet in iron-deficient individuals increased hemoglobin and concluded that millet overall has the potential to reduce the incidence of anemia caused by iron deficiency.
In addition to a robust nutrition profile, millets may further contribute to global food security because they mature quickly, with some varietals needing only about two and a half months to go from seed to harvest. This allows farmers to produce a larger number of calories over a shorter time frame. When more millets are brought to market they increase the diversity of the food system, which makes the food system itself more resilient to shocks brought on by disasters and emergencies. Since millets are hearty and can be grown where other cereal grains cannot, they also help make regional food systems more self-sufficient by decreasing dependency on imported grains.
Industrial Food Animal Production
Millets also have the potential to help reduce the harmful public health and climate change impacts of food animal production, both as a healthier plant-based source of protein and by replacing more resource-intensive crops used as animal feed. Compared to other commonly consumed grains like rice and maize, millets have a higher protein content with most varieties having 10-12 grams of protein per 100 gram serving. When combined with legumes or other lysine rich plant-based protein, they form a complete protein that is a nutritional powerhouse. This makes them an excellent choice for incorporation into plant-based diets. Many varieties of millets, especially teff, sorghum, and pearl millet, are good sources of iron, which is often a nutrient of concern for those trying to cut back on meat.
In terms of animal production, millets can be used for feed, forage, and grazing purposes. They are well-suited to more sustainable and regenerative farming styles that integrate food and livestock production through rotational practices. As forage or for grazing purposes, they are particularly beneficial for cattle and sheep. The seed portion of the plant is also a nutritious option to add to poultry feed. Pearl millet can replace up to 50% of maize in the diet of broilers and up to 75% of the maize in the diet of laying hens without compromising the growth or quality of the broiler or eggs. Additionally, since millets are higher in methionine than corn, adding millets to poultry feed can reduce the need for methionine supplementation. Replacing other cereals with millets in feed could reduce the environmental impact of animal production because they require less inputs by way of water, nitrogenous fertilizers and emit less harmful air pollutants and greenhouse gases.ha
On top of nutritional and environmental benefits, millets also can strengthen local economies, especially in low-income countries. Because millets are relatively simple to grow and do not require specialized equipment or high inputs such as fertilizer, they present a big opportunity to improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers. Further jobs can be created through processing and marketing opportunities, which could help reduce poverty and lead to economic growth on the regional/national level.
In the US, millets are found at various grocery stores from Walmart to Whole Foods. The popular brand Bobs Red Mill sells both hulled millet and millet flour as well as whole grain teff and teff flour. African and Indian markets are likely to have a greater variety of millets.
Millets can easily replace rice in a number of dishes ranging from stir-fries to grain bowls to pilafs. They can also be used to make porridges, and millet flour can be used as a gluten-free flour substitute. To find millet in a restaurant setting check out Ethiopian cuisine. Injera, a teff based spongy flatbread, is the base of many Ethiopian dishes.
The Year of the Millets can be celebrated by spreading the word, trying a millet-based dish, or advocating for policies to support increased millet production. Millets have the potential to bring about positive changes to our economies, environment, and health. It is time for millets to shine so that power can be unleashed!
Christine LiPuma is a registered dietitian with five years of experience in the primary care setting. She is currently pursuing her Master of Public Health degree with a concentration in food systems at Johns Hopkins University and working at the Center for a Livable Future.