The UN has looked into the revival of millets as global crop uncertainty increases

The UN has looked into the revival of millets as global crop uncertainty increases

RUSHINGA, Zimbabwe (AP) — While others in her Zimbabwean village agonize over the apparent failure of the corn crop, Jestina Nyamukunguvengu lifts a spade through the soil of her field, which is green with pearl millet crops in the African country. Dry Rashinga District.

“These crops are not affected by drought, they flower quickly, and this is the only way we can beat the drought,” the 59-year-old said with a laugh. Millets, including sorghum, now occupy two hectares of his land — a patch where maize was once the preferred crop.

Farmers like Nyamukunguvengu in the developing world are at the forefront of a project proposed by India that has the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations naming 2023 “The Year of Millets,” an effort to revive a robust and healthy crop. Cultivated for millennia — but European colonists favored corn, wheat and other grains.

The designation is timely: last year, Drought prevails across much of East Africa; War between Russia and Ukraine Supply cuts and food prices rise and manure from the bread basket of Europe; Increased concern over the environmental fallout of cross-globe shipments of farm products; Many chefs and consumers alike are looking to diversify their diets at a time of overly standardized fare.

Which has given a new impetus to locally grown and alternative crops and other staple foods like millet.

Millets come in multiple varieties, including finger millet, fonio, sorghum, and teff, which are used in the spongy injera bread familiar to Ethiopian food lovers. Proponents tout millets for their health benefits — they can be rich in protein, potassium and B vitamins — and most varieties are gluten-free. And they’re versatile: useful in everything from bread, cereal and couscous to pudding and even beer.

For centuries, millets have been cultivated around the world — in places like Japan, Europe, the Americas and Australia — but their heartland has traditionally been India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, said Fenn Bied, leader of the Rural and FAO team. 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 can be rethought as possible alternatives to what would otherwise be imported – something that is at risk during our pandemic choices, or when we have them. Love the conflict,” said Bid.

Millets are 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 require nearly as much water as other crops, making them ideal for places like the arid Sahel region of Africa, and their deep-rooted varieties like fonio can help mitigate desertification, the process that turns fertile land into desert, often due to drought or deforestation. desolate

“Fonio is nicknamed Lazy Farmer Crops. That’s how easy it is to grow,” says Pierre Thiam, executive chef and co-founder of the New York-based fine-casual food chain Teranga, which features West African cuisine. “When the first rains come, farmers just have to go outside and just like fonio seeds. … They barely till the ground.”

“And it’s a fast-growing crop too: it can mature in two months,” he said, admitting it’s not all that easy: “Fonio processing is very difficult. You have to remove the skin before it’s edible.”

Millet accounts for less than 3% of global grain trade, according to FAO. However, cultivation is increasing in some arid regions. In Rushinga district, millet cultivation has almost tripled in the last decade. The United Nations World Food Program last season deployed dozens of threshing machines to drought-prone areas and packed seeds and trained 63,000 smallholder farmers.

Low rainfall and high temperatures due to climate change in recent years, combined with poor soils, have reduced interest in water-logged maize.

“You’ll see people who grow maize are asking for food aid, people who grow sorghum or pearl millet are still eating their small grains,” said district agronomist Melody Sorio, pointing to small grains like millet, whose seeds can be as fine as sand. “We expect that in the next five years, small grains will overtake corn.”

Government teams in Zimbabwe have provided expert support through WhatsApp groups to remote rural areas, inspecting crops and disseminating technical knowledge to farmers.

WFP spokeswoman Tatenda Macheka said millet is “helping us reduce food insecurity” in Zimbabwe, where about a quarter of the country’s 15 million people – a breadbasket of southern Africa – are now food insecure, meaning they are unsure where their next meal will come from.

In Zimbabwe’s urban areas and beyond, restaurants and hotels are developing the new idea that a millet dish gives an air of class and makes it more expensive on their menus.

Thiam, the US-based chef, recalled eating phonio as a kid in Senegal’s southern Casamance region, but was upset that it wasn’t often found in his hometown — the capital — New York. He once “naively” admitted to dreaming of what is known in rural Senegal as the “grain of royalty” – served to honor visiting guests – becoming a “world-class crop”.

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

“It’s really amazing that you can have a crop that’s been overlooked for so long,” Thiam said in an interview from his home in El Cerrito, Calif., where he’s moved to be closer to his wife and her family. “It’s over time that we integrate it into our diet.”


Kitten reports from Geneva. Haven Daily in El Cerrito, Calif. contributed to this report.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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