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Farmers Push Comeback of ‘Cereal of the Poor’

by Anitha Reddy

KARNATAKA, India - Eshwarappa Banakar has been a farmer most of his adult life, but these days he has also turned banker - banker of seeds, that is, and especially of millet strains.

Puttaraju, a farmer in southern Karnataka state in India, proudly shows off his prize crop, millet, which assures him of a steady harvest. (Credit:Krishna Prasad/IPS) Yet while his is Karnataka's first seed bank to be set up by an individual farmer, it is only one of the signs of the millet's creeping comeback in the agricultural sector of this southern Indian state.

The welcome trend is partly due to the efforts of Sahaja Samrudha (Bountiful Nature), an organisation working toward reviving the cultivation of traditional millets in Karnataka's dryland tracts. Banakar, for instance, acquired his seeds from the group, which maintains a network of farmers and encourages on- farm conservation of traditional seed varieties.

Explains Krishna Prasad, founder and director of Sahaja Samrudha: "The focus of the conservation is to prevent the extinction of these valuable crops, and this can be achieved only by reintroducing them into the farming systems where it has disappeared."

Millets are staples of the traditional Karnataka diet, and are served usually as roti or as millet rice. They are considered rich sources of minerals, amino acids, and fibre. Chamarajanagara district farmer Rajashekara Murthy even asserts, "The nutritive value of the native ‘ragi' (finger millet) varieties is so high that one ‘ragi ball' suffices to sustain a worker for the entire day."

The cultivation of millets, however, has been on the decline for the last three decades.

One major reason for this has been the focus on the more profitable cash crops such as sugarcane, potato, sunflower, cotton, and other cereals like rice and wheat. Millets at one point were also branded as "cereal of the poor," a negative connotation that could have only contributed to its diminishing popularity in the rural areas and to the non-existent demand for it among urban people.

Murthy points a finger as well at the Public Distribution System (PDS), saying, "The introduction of rice - supplied at subsidised prices through the PDS - has replaced ‘ragi' as main staple."

"I remember my childhood when we depended only on millets for our meals," Banakar, the seed banker, also says. "But (we) later changed to growing commercial crops."

Conserving millets, though, is strategic in terms of their nutritional contribution and their role in local agro-ecosystems, says Sahaja Samrudha's Prasad. Experts in fact say that millets, which are low-water consuming crops, make perfect sense as crops for the small and marginal farmers in most of southern India's semi-arid zones.

"Indian agriculture is mainly dependent on rainfall, as 70 percent of our net cultivated area is under dryland agriculture," notes agronomy professor Dr N Deva Kumar of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. "In order to feed (our) increasing population, there is continued pressure on drylands to produce more."

Millets, Kumar says, are best suited for "low rainfall (300 to 800 mm) situations" and "are free from pest and disease attack". Thus, he says, it will "play a major role in combating the situation of climate change, which results in increased temperature, reduced rainfall, reduced crop productivity, etcetera."

Banakar, who has so far collected for his seed bank 25 varieties of sorghum, 30 of finger millet, and 10 of foxtail millet, besides a few varieties of kodo millet, proso millet, and pearl millet, realises that now. The resident of Haveri district in this Indian state recalls that when his family was growing commercial crops, "every time there was a drought or a flood, we incurred losses."

"It was the prevailing drought-like situation for a few years that finally woke me up to the fact that we can't get anywhere with only high-input cash crops," says Madegowda, a farmer who has taken to conserving about 26 varieties of finger millet on his farm in Mysore district.

"Drought, apart from bringing down yields, also dried up my crop, which created scarcity of fodder," he says. "Then I realised the value of ‘ragi', which gives me food as well as fodder for my cattle. Purchasing fodder is very expensive from the market."

Koppal district farmer Shekammavani Huchhappa says that millets can withstand not only drought but heavy rain. Encouraged by Sahaja Samrudha, she has been growing the seven kinds of millets - finger, kodo, foxtail, little millet, proso, barnyard, and pearl - while following different modes of crop diversification.

Puttaraju, another farmer in Chamarajnagar district, also in Karnataka, cultivates a combination of different millets, pulses, and oilseeds even as he grows finger millet as a main crop. He says this ensures him of a harvest come rain or shine. The method, he adds, will also increase returns from the land in terms of nutrient availability, water holding capacity, and soil fertility, in addition to pest and disease control.

Mixed cropping of millet with other grains or legumes is an important practice in traditional cropping system. Locally called ‘akadi' in south Karnataka, it is receiving renewed interest along with the return of millets as crops in local farms.

(This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, CGIAR/Bioversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of Communicators for Sustainable Development (http://www.complusalliance.org).

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