Young Indian farmers turn to an ancient crop to combat water stress and climate change

India is facing a water and food crisis, exacerbated by extreme climatic cycles, such as the current heat wave, where temperatures well above 40℃ were common. With 1.4 billion people to feed and such heat waves will become more frequent, the country clearly needs more sustainable agriculture.

In Punjab, a northwestern “granary” of 27 million people, policymakers are now seriously considering crop diversity, a marked shift from a previous emphasis on fields of solely wheat or rice. The problem is that those crops use a lot of precious groundwater, which is quickly running out. State data shows that groundwater is extracted at a rate of 14 billion cubic meters per year. In 1984, less than half of the state’s “administrative blockades” were over-exploited, today it’s nearly 80%.

For now, Punjab focuses on increasing the use of crops such as corn, pulses, oilseeds, cotton and even poplars that grow quickly and are used for wood or paper. But some young farmers — less averse to behavioral change and more risk-tolerant than older generations — are instead turning to a crop with a centuries-old history.

Back to millet

Millets are a group of grains that come in a number of varieties and are known as a superfood because of their nutrient-rich composition and high starch and protein content. They provide health benefits, especially for those suffering from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the consumption of millet manages the body’s sugar levels, promotes detoxification and aids in digestion. Porridge, biscuits, pancakes and bread made from millet are consumed in many parts of the world.

Importantly, millet is a great alternative to rice as they don’t require a lot of water, are pest resistant, have a very long shelf life and are profitable. Research shows that millet is heat resistant, making them a wise crop choice in a changing climate.

Field with millet sheaf
The most common millet in India is Bajra, known in other countries as pearl millet.
Dhavalsing Solanki/shutterstock

Millets have always been bred in Punjab, even though they were never dominant. Archaeological evidence reveals that they were used in the early days of agriculture, long before the cities of the Indus civilization even appeared. Millets also helped feed the region’s population (and their livestock) during extended periods of drought and variable rainfall that hit the subcontinent just over 4,000 years ago.

Despite this deep history, the millet crop in India has declined in recent decades. For example, bajra (pearl millet) was grown on 217,000 hectares in Punjab in the 1950s, but was reduced to just 500 hectares in 2020. But cultivation is now picking up again as the state’s rice farmers grow millet.

Millets such as ragi, bajra and guar are now grown as a supplementary crop by more enterprising farmers in scattered and pocket-sized areas. This practice is influenced by an active flow of information and knowledge about climate change, changing agricultural policy environments and evolving consumer markets with increased demand. In addition to selling these crops as raw millet, farmers collectively sell processed, packaged, and branded consumer millet products. While millet is easy to grow, its profitability ultimately depends on these market forces.

food parcels
Millet dosa, rava dosa (thin pancakes) and upma (a type of porridge).
Rainbow_dazzle / shutterstock

Part of a sustainable solution

Although the economic yields of millet are high, the yields – the production per unit area – are about six times lower than that of rice. Millet is therefore not a universal solution, but should be part of a package of crops that can be grown more sustainably and are more adaptable to climate fluctuations. After all, the current level of rice cultivation is also not sustainable, because the groundwater is almost empty. It is important that millet can be grown on land that is no longer suitable for rice cultivation.

It is clear that Punjab needs to diversify away from rice and embrace alternative crops. While this privilege belongs to farmers, the government should also encourage and facilitate diversification through subsidies and other policy support. Punjab benefits from a young population with a strong agricultural heritage. It is time to tap into this legacy, diversify crops and make Indian agriculture more sustainable.

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