UN eyes millet revival as global grain uncertainty grows

RUSHINGA, Zimbabwe (AP) — As others in her Zimbabwean village agonize over a seemingly failing corn crop, Jestina Nyamukunguvengu picks up a hoe and cuts through the soil of her lush green fields with a crop of pearl millet in the background. african country. Rushinga arid district.

“These crops are not affected by drought, they flower fast and that’s the only way we can beat the drought,” the 59-year-old said with a broad smile. Millet, including sorghum, now occupies more than two hectares of his land, an area where maize was once the crop of choice.

Farmers like Nyamukunguvengu in the developing world are on the front lines of a project proposed by India that has prompted the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to christen 2023 “The Year of Millet,” an effort to revive a hardy and healthy crop that has been cultivated for millennia, but was largely neglected by European settlers who preferred corn, wheat, and other grains.

The designation is timely: last year, drought ravaged much of eastern Africa; the war between Russia and the Ukraine upended supplies and raised the prices of food and fertilizer from the breadbasket of Europe; concerns were raised about the environmental consequences of international shipments of agricultural products; many chefs and consumers are looking to diversify diets in a time of overly standardized food.

All of this has given new impetus to locally grown and alternative grains and other staples such as millet.

Millets come in multiple varieties, including African millet, fonio, sorghum, and teff, which are used in the fluffy injera bread familiar to fans of Ethiopian cuisine. Proponents tout millet for its healthiness—they can be high in protein, potassium, and B vitamins—and most varieties are gluten-free. And they’re versatile: useful on everything from bread, cereal, and couscous to pudding and even beer.

For centuries, millet has been cultivated around the world, in places like Japan, Europe, the Americas and Australia, but its epicenters have traditionally been India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, said Fen Beed, FAO team leader. for agriculture and rural livestock. urban crops and mechanization systems.

Many countries realized that they “should go back and look at what is indigenous to their agricultural heritage and what could be revisited as a possible substitute for what would otherwise be imported, which is at risk when we had pandemics or when we have the he likes conflict,” Beed said.

Millet is more tolerant of poor soil, drought, and harsh growing conditions, and can easily adapt to different environments without high levels of fertilizers and pesticides. They don’t need as much water as other grains, making them ideal for places like the arid Sahel region of Africa, and the deep roots of varieties like fonio can help mitigate desertification, the process that turns fertile soil into desert, often due to drought. or deforestation.

“Fonio is nicknamed the lazy farmers crop. It’s that easy to grow,” says Pierre Thiam, executive chef and co-founder of Teranga, the New York-based fine-casual chain that offers West African cuisine. “When the first rain comes, farmers just have to leave. and just like throwing away fonio seeds… They barely till the soil.”

“And it’s also a fast-growing crop: it can mature in two months,” he said, acknowledging that it’s not entirely easy: “Processing fonio is very difficult. You have to remove the skin before it becomes edible.”

Millet accounts for less than 3% of world cereal trade, according to the FAO. But the crop is growing in some arid areas. In Rushinga district, the land under millet has nearly tripled over the past decade. The UN World Food Program deployed dozens of threshers and delivered seed packets and training to 63,000 smallholder farmers in drought-prone areas in the previous season.

Low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, partly due to climate change, along with poor soils, have dampened interest in water-intensive corn.

“You will find that those who grew maize are the ones who are seeking food assistance, those who have grown sorghum or pearl millet are still eating their small grains,” said Melody Tsoriyo, a district agronomist, referring to small grains like millet. whose seeds can be as fine as sand. “We anticipate that in the next five years, small grains will outperform corn.”

Zimbabwean government teams have been deployed in remote rural regions, inspecting crops and providing expert assistance, such as through WhatsApp groups, to disseminate technical knowledge to farmers.

WFP spokesman Tatenda Macheka said millet “is helping us reduce food insecurity” in Zimbabwe, where around a quarter of people in the country of 15 million – long a southern breadbasket from Africa—are now food insecure, which means they are not sure where their next meal will come from.

In Zimbabwe’s urban areas and far beyond, restaurants and hotels have a new impression that a meal of millet offers a touch of class, and have pricierized it on their menus.

Thiam, the US-based chef, recalled eating fonio as a child in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, but worried that it was not often available in his hometown, the capital, much less except in New York. He admitted that he once “naively” dreamed of turning what is known in rural Senegal as “the grain of royalty”, which is used to honor guests, into a “world-class harvest”.

He has scaled back those ambitions a bit, but still sees a future for small beans.

“It’s really amazing that you can have a grain like this that has been ignored for so long,” Thiam said in an interview from his home in El Cerrito, California, where he moved to be closer to his wife and family. “It is high time that we integrate it into our diet.”


Keaten reported from Geneva. Haven Daley in El Cerrito, Calif. contributed to this report.


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