In India, approximately 60% of the cultivated area in India is rainfed. Out of the total net sown area of 141.0 Mha, rainfed area accounts for 85.0 M.ha spread over 177 districts. Rainfed areas contributes 44% of the total food grain produc- tion of the country and produces 75% of pulses and more than 90% of sorghum, millet and groundnut from arid and semi-arid regions. Even after nearly 60 years of negligence, the rainfed regions provide livelihood to nearly 50% of the total workforce and sustain 60% of the cattle population of the country.

India had a rich crop diversity- crops and varieties which are suitable for different growing conditions and differ- ent uses was the practice always. Diversity of food crops holds the key to sustainable and real food security. Such diversity lends in itself useful in terms of a variety of growing conditions for a variety of preferences and needs. Needless to add, diversity of foods is critical to nutritional security, a key component of food security. Diversity is crucial for an element of risk insurance in the rainfed and vulnerable belts of the country. This is all the more so in the era of climate change – in fact, diversity-based farming can contribute to mitigation of climate

change even as it helps farmers to adapt to climate change. Despite a growing understanding on the importance of agro- diversity, rapid genetic erosion has been allowed to take place by policies and programmes that are unmindful and neglectful to this critical aspect of our future.

Genetic erosion: The push for intensive agriculture mod- els that rely on monocultures has changed our food and farm- ing systems as they used to exist, the world-over and particu- larly in India, quite a bit in the past few decades. Where hu- man beings have discovered and evolved thou- sands of food plants on this planet (around 2000 plant species have been domesticated and cultivated by humans for food), the largest consumption of foods now is only of around 30 food plants. In fact, it is estimated that only 9 food plants provide over 75% of the total calories consumed by humans. Just three grains rice, wheat and corn provide nearly 60% of human food supply. As per the FAO (2004), top agricultural products in terms of pro- duction include: Sugarcane, Maize, Wheat, Rice, Potatoes, Sugar Beet, Soybean, Oil Palm, Barley & Tomato. Further- more, we con- tinually rely on fewer and fewer varieties of those 30 plants and on individual varieties which are less and less genetical- ly diverse

The erosion of genetic diversity of rice in India is a clas- sic example. While some estimates project that there used to be around two lakh varieties of rice cultivated in India, other estimates project a figure of around 140000 different geno- types of rice. Indian gene banks have 86330 accessions of rice. This is the case of just one crop with tens of thousands of varieties almost all of which were evolved by farmers them- selves; this is indeed an impressive heritage to be proud of. However, the genetic diversity of most rice cultivated in India today rests on just around 30 varieties, with 85 % of the rice

production coming from just 10 varieites (Return to Good Earth, 1985)It is ironic that even as rice as a crop lost much of its varietal diversity, policies around rice as the main crop around which the national food security has been built in India meant that Rice has been a factor for marginalization of other food crops including many millets like little millet, finger millet etc.

The excessive thrust on Rice & Wheat: The Green Revo- lution had its emphasis on two grains (wheat and rice), as they were amenable to some technology-tweaking and higher in- put provision like water and chemical fertilizers; pol- icy mak- ers equated food security for everyone in this country with these grains. Rice and wheat thus received great sup- port in the policy-makers’ quest to increase food production and produc- tivity in the country and the food production sys- tem became centralized and skewed towards particular pock- ets in the country. The Green Revolution pockets became monocultures of these two crops and needless to say, this also meant more markets for the farm machinery, chemical fertilizer and syn- thetic pesticides industries. Today, these Green Revolution belts are bearing the ecological, economic, social and cul- tural impacts of such a monoculture. Same is the case with oilseeds, pulses etc.

In the rainfed areas of the country, the entry of rice and wheat through the PDS (Public Distribution System which came to embody the government’s concept of food security, unfortunately) disrupted not only the local food cultures but led to neglect of local ‘coarse’ grains and farming systems de- signed around such grains. The excessive support to rice and wheat led to a decline in the diversity of food crops around the country and the table below (Table 1) gives a pic- ture of the changes within the crops classified as “food grains” in the country.

Crop shifts in the last five decades in India                               Million ha

2. 3.Wheat Jowar18.2 17.422.3 15.824.2 14.425.7 9.929.2 7.1
6.Other Cereals9.

It is also worth noting that while the classification of ‘Coarse Cereals’ in this key repository of information of the Government of India above is meant to cover jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), ragi (finger millet), maize, bar- ley and other small millets, further tables for just three millets – sorghum, pearl millet and maize – show that these three add up to “Coarse Cereals” and data on other millets like little mil- let, finger millet, kodo millet etc., is not available. This is probably an indicator in itself of the marginalization of other food grains.

Why millets?

Low water foot print: Millets need very little water for their production. While every kilogram of rice in its production in ponding conditions consumers about 5000 litres of water, mil- lets like sorghum, bajra, ragi consume only 200 litres for every kg. Hence very suitable for the rainfed areas.

Adapted to wide range of ecological conditions: Millets adapt to various agro-ecological conditions even in poor and shallow soils.

High resilience in the context of climate change: Due to their adaptation to various weather conditions, millets show

high resilience in adapting to the changing weather condi- tions in addition to contributing little to the climate change.

Nutrient dense: Millets are rich in nutrients. Each of the mil- lets is three to five times nutritionally superior to the widely promoted rice and wheat in terms of proteins, minerals and vitamins.

Nutrient composition of sorghum, millets and other cere- als (per 100 g edible portion; 12 percent moisture)

FoodProtein (g)Fat (g) (g)Ash (g)Crude fibre (g)Carhoh ydrate (g)Energy (kcal)Ca (mg)Fe (mg)Thiamin (mg)Ribo flavin (mg)Niacin (mg)
Rice (brown)
Pearl millet11.
Finger millet7.
Foxtail millet11.
Common millet12.
Little millet9.
Barnyard millet11.03.94.513.655.03002218.60.330.104.2
Kodo millet9.

Social inter-linkages with diversity of food crops: It has been experienced time and again that the destruction of food sources disempowers women and on the other hand, margin- alizing women from agriculture further jeopardizes food and nutrition security of a household. These are mutually con- nected and any interventions on improving food and nutrition security have to begin with this acknowledgement.

Similarly, it should be remembered that diversity of food crops cannot be saved unless farming community, especially of small and marginal farmers, is not saved. Large farmers, with large holdings, tend to lean towards intensive farming models and favor monocultures so that technologies like farm machinery, herbicides or herbicide-tolerant crops etc., can be

Mineral composition of millets (mg%)

GrainNumber of cultivarsPMgCaFeZnCuMnMoCr
Pearl millet9379137468.
Finger millet63201373983.92.30.475.490.100.028
Foxtail millet5         
Whole 42281385.32.91.600.850.070
Dehulled 36068212.82.41.400.600.030
Common millet5         
Whole 281117234.02.45.801.200.040
Dehulled 156780.81.41.600.600.600.020
Little millet5         
Whole 2511331213.93.51.601.030.240
Dehulled 220139139.
Barnyard millet5         
Whole 34082219.22.61.301.330.140
Dehulled 26739285.03.00.600.960.090
Kodo millet5         
Whole 215166313.61.55.802.900.080
Dehulled 16182200.50.71.601.100.020

used. The market-driven models of farming obviously favor this even if it is at the irretrievable expense of agro-diversity.

However, small and marginal farmers, whose small hold- ings are often by default the conservation sites for crop diver- sity, are ones who also benefit from agro-diversity. It is clear that diversity of crops including diversity of food crops need small holders and women farmers at that, while these farmers need diversity for their livelihoods. We should real- ize that we are breaking several links in the inter-connected web of food grains’ production in a farming systems approach with nutri- tion security, conservation of productive resources like soil and water, livestock integration, fuel wood needs etc. etc. when we shift farming to monocultures by design.

The carefully evolved continuum of nature – culture agri- culture – agrarian community, which also has livelihoods inte- grated into the continuum, gets broken in a vicious man- ner when new technologies and cropping decisions are imposed thoughtlessly.

What should be done now?

It should be appreciated that diversity of food crops can be saved only if they are used and if there is some value in utility from such diversity for farmers and consumers. It is also apparent that diverse strategies have to be used to safe- guard food diversity and the strategies would actually be location- specific not just on a technical level but given the diverse needs of different communities.

Conservation in ex-situ seed banks hardly makes sense when the need for diversity on-farm is so stark, both for food/ nutrition security reasons and for adaptive capabilities in the age of climate change.

A revival of food crop diversity requires intense dia- logues both with farmers and consumers so that they embrace the sustainable approach in an informed manner. This also requires policy level support for all food grains and in fact needs popularization of millets and other forgotten foods through extension of practices that would protect uncultivated foods too. The government would do well to remember that diversity cannot be maintained unless small- holder farming is saved and unless women are given the space and role to address their own food security. This also implies access and control to productive resources even as it entails a curbing of the disproportionate equating of rice/wheat with our notion of food security.

Innovative ways of supporting crops like millets is essential. The farmers growing millets can be compensated for their ecosystem services.

Governments should include in the regular food schemes of the country like Public Distribution Sytem, ICDS, Mid-day meals etc.