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Millets in Nepal: Nurturing sustainability, cultivating health

Millets in Nepal: Nurturing sustainability, cultivating health

In a significant move, the UN General Assembly declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets on 5 March  2021. This resolution, co-proposed by Nepal, India and other nations, garnered support from 72 countries. Its aim is to spotlight the pivotal role of millets in ensuring food security, bolstering nutrition, and enhancing climate resilience.

Millets, often an underrated crop, have been quietly nurturing and sustaining the people of Nepal for centuries. These hardy grains are renowned for their adaptability to diverse and challenging agro-ecological conditions, making them a lifeline in regions with low fertility and limited resources. Compared to major cereal crops, millets stand tall with their superior nutritional value.

For many small-scale farmers grappling with infertile, arid, or upland fields and no access to irrigation or inputs, millets have emerged as a vital food source. With climate change affecting agriculture across the nation, millets offer a sustainable solution to fortify nutrition and food security, while also safeguarding biodiversity.

Nepal boasts a rich diversity of millet types, including:

  1. Finger Millet (Kodo)

It is the 4th most important crop of Nepal after rice, maize and wheat in terms of area and production. The major production districts of Nepal for this crop are Khotang, Sindhupalchok, Baglung, Syangja, Kaski, Gorkha and Sindhuli. It is grown in mid-hills and high-hills low in fertility and marginal lands. The disease and pest infestation are low and need less management. Several food preparations are made from finger millet. The most common is a thick porridge locally known as ‘dhindo’ and other products are pancakes, roasted thick breads and fermented alcoholic beverages (‘raksi’).

It is high in fiber and thus digests slowly and aids in weight loss. It has 10 times more calcium than rice and wheat. It is rich in iron, phosphorus, calcium thus extremely good especially for pregnant ladies and  diabetic, uric acid and high blood pressure patients and relieves constipation and diarrhea. It has 9.25 percent protein and 76 percent carbohydrate.

  1. Proso Millet (Chino)

It is the 2nd important millet in Nepal. It has the shortest growing period of 60-90 days. It can be grown with low water and fertilizer requirements where other crops can’t grow. In light of the nation's changing environment, it is the crop of the future with tremendous potential for addressing food insecurity in rural regions. Chino is used for making Bhat (boiled), kheer (pudding) and raksi (liquor). The flour can be used for making dhindo (porridge) and roti (pancake and flat bread).

Grown in Mugu, Dolpa, Humla, Jumla, Kalikot, and Jajarkot districts, Chino has phenols (anti-cancer), calcium, magnesium and iron. It lacks gluten so is safe to eat for those who are sensitive to it. Per 100-gram chino contains 55 mg iron, 55 mg calcium, 19.4 mg phosphorus, 9.7 percent protein, 73.9 percent carbohydrates and 11.9 percent crude fiber.

  1. Foxtail Millet (Kaguno)

Foxtail millet (Kaguno) is the third most important crop among the group of millets. Major foxtail millet growing districts in Nepal include Mugu, Kalikot, Humla, Jumla, Bajhang, Bajura, Dolpa, Lamjung,Gorkha, Ramechhap and Kavre where crop is grown sole as well as mixed with finger millet, proso millet, beans, amaranths and sorghum, etc. The average production is 815 kg/ha. Foxtail millet is valued by mountain farmers for its nutritional content and health promoting properties, ability to grow with low input and tolerance to drought. Cooked Kaguno is used as Bhat (cooked like rice), dhindo (porridge), kheer (like rice pudding) and sweets.

It is also appreciated for medicinal benefits such as reducing blood glucose levels and cholesterol control in normal as well as diabetic patients. It contains 12.35 percent protein, 60.9 percent carbohydrates and eight percent crude fiber.

  1. Sorghum (Junelo)

Sorghum is one of the four major food grains of the world. These days it is being used as biofuel in developed countries. It is cultivated in terrace bonds and used for food and fodder. A good source of iron, calcium and protein, Sorghum is an endangered millet in Nepal. Elderly people and young toddlers with brittle teeth can consume it.

  1. Pearl Millet (Bajra)

Pearl millet cultivation in Nepal is very limited to small areas in the Tarai and Lower Hills. It is the most drought tolerant crop among the cereals and millets. Pearl millet has superior nutritive value to sorghum but inferior feeding value. It makes bones strong and good for diabetic patients. Many healthy dishes like Dalia, Roti, Paratha, Sweets and Pancakes can be made from pearl millet. The grain contains about 11.6 percent protein, 67 percent carbohydrates and 2.7 percent minerals.

  1. Barnyard Millet (Sama)

In Nepal, its cultivation is limited to western mid-hills. A hardy crop, it can withstand adverse weather conditions better than other cereals. It is used as food for human consumption and feed for livestock and birds. It is rich in protein, Vit B-complex and helps in weight loss. Sama grain contains 6.2 percent protein, 9.8 percent crude fiber and 65.5 percent carbohydrates. 

  1. Kodo Millet (Kodi)

A highly drought-resistant crop. Kodi is recommended as a substitute for rice for diabetic patients. Its straw is of poor quality and harmful to horses. It lowers cancer risk and reduces high blood pressure. Kodi contains 8.3 percent protein and 1.4 percent fat. 

To commemorate the ‘International Year of Millets 2023’, I had the privilege of meeting Finger Millet farmers in Chitwan. They cultivate millets where rice struggles to grow, using self-saved seeds and sustainable practices. Many were unaware of the nutritional goldmine they possessed.

These farmers face challenges like the blast disease, but solutions exist through improved seed varieties and disease management. During festivals, they share millet-based dishes and beverages, emphasizing the need for awareness on the nutritional and environmental benefits of millets.

It’s time for governmental and non-governmental organizations to champion millets through seminars, training and workshops, fostering their value addition. Despite lower yields, organic cultivation can bring higher prices in both national and international markets. Millets are not just grains; they are the seeds of sustainability, nutrition, and health. Let's sow the seeds of change together.