Millets have evolved to survive in extremely harsh conditions without any need for human intervention. Some millets have been domesticated more (foxtail, pearl, finger, proso, sorghum) than others (kodo, brown top). But so far, most of the varieties developed have preserved this characteristic, enabling them to thrive in fairly diverse environments. In the current situation of worsening conditions due to climate change, it is these features that have brought millets back into the focus of researchers and policy makers seeking to develop a more sustainable food system.
Millets, being rain fed crops, do not require standing water in their fields. This eliminates the need for big dams, reservoirs and elaborate canal systems that have submerged forests and swallowed budgets. Millets do not need any fertility enhancement or pesticides to yield a good harvest. Essentially, the ecological footprint of millets is a tiny fraction of that for paddy or wheat.
Millets are extremely nutritious grains. Their high nutrient content makes them desirable not just to humans, but also to birds and other animals. Birds have co-evolved with these grains and therefore have beaks adapted to hulling these grains, while ruminant animals such as cattle have a digestive system that can digest the hard cellulosic fibres in their husk. So all the typical by-products of processing millets for human consumption is utilized as an additive to bird and cattle feed.
Millets have also played an important role in nurturing soils and improving their fertility and texture, thereby increasing the yield and returns to the farmer. Once the root system is established, millets can survive many dry weeks. Once it starts raining, the plants jump back to life and yield something by the end of the season. Millets are thus fairly effective at aggregating nutrients. If we are conscious about closing the nutrient loop locally, a manifold increase in soil health can be achieved.
Millets are thus environmentally, ecologically and economically friendly sources of food and nutrition.