Almost overlooked in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic began to threaten human health and life around the planet was the 2020 International Year of Plant Health (IYPH). Here’s a quick catch-up about this important observance, which has been “extended until 1 July 2021 due to the postponement of some key initiatives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
When its initial proposal did not go through, India subsequently (in mid-2018) advocated having the IYOM in 2019. That again might not have left enough time to organize such an observation. Also, the 2019 calendar was already pretty crowded with three international years (on indigenous languages, the periodical table, and moderation).
It is not clear what the process was of deciding on 2023, although that will certainly leave adequate time. The next step is getting a formal United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring IYOM 2023 and its objectives.
Millets (not simply “millet”) are several related grains that have been discussed at some length on this blog (see tag millets, plus an archived version of a post from another site). One question is whether the whole millet spectrum will be covered by IYOM 2023 – from sorghum at the large end to fonio and teff at the small end, via all the grains in between that are surnamed “millet” in English (pearl millet, proso millet, finger millet, foxtail millet, and others).
India is celebrating 2018 as its National Year of Millets. This follows a proposal by the government of India to the United Nations (UN) in late 2017 to make 2018 the International Year of Millets (which I’ll abbreviate IYOM). The purpose of IYOM would have been to highlight the importance of diverse millets for for farmers, for nutrition, and for food production in the wake of effects of climate change. Evidently, and unfortunately, that proposal was too late in the year to set the machinery in motion to organize an international observance of this sort in the following year.
The question at this point is what is the possibility of organizing a future international observance for these important but not fully appreciated grains. Will India’s experience with its current National Year of Millets help generate interest for an eventual IYOM, or take the steam off that proposal? Or will it lead to a year with a related but broader topic, covering something like “underutilized crops”?
It will take some time to know the answers. In the meantime, here’s some information on what has and hasn’t happened with respect to both the national and international years.
India’s National Year of Millets, 2018
The purpose of the National Year in India is similar to that mentioned above for the IYOM. One apparent concern is that even as millets are adapted to diverse conditions and have good nutritional profiles, cultivation of them has declined significantly relative to the main grain crops like wheat and rice.
In January, the southwest Indian state of Karnataka – a major producer of several types of millet – held a previously planned Organics and Millets International Trade Fair in Bengaluru (logo featured at right). But it is not clear from available information what actions are being planned specifically for the year. At such time as more information is available, I will post about it.
India is a veritable crossroads of millets – cultivating most of the millet species grown in diverse parts of the world, and even exporting some. So its success with its National Year of Millets will be important to watch.
Soon the Hyderabad, India-based International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) joined in, with a graphic presentation on the proposed IYOM and support for Minister Singh’s letter. The “Indian Father of the Green Revolution,” Prof. M.S. Swaminathan tweeted his support. Supposedly other countries were interested. But stepping back to look at the planning and lead time given for other international year observances, this idea, however laudable, did not have enough time to generate the support, means, and thinking needed to put together a successful world-wide observance for 2018.
According to the UN, most observances such as international years “have been established by resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly [UNGA], although some have been designated by UN specialized agencies.” So perhaps FAO could have declared a year of millets, though as Minister Gowda was quoted as saying already last October, “The FAO is of the view that it takes time to decide.” One would imagine that a decision by the UNGA to establish such an observance would carry more weight, since it speaks for the whole UN. However the UNGA only meets for a limited time each year, and its agenda is usually set several months in advance. Of the three International Year observances scheduled for 2019, one – Indigenous Languages – was decided in a UNGA resolution in late 2016, and the other two – Moderation and the Periodic Table – were set in late 2017. Talking must have begun at least a year earlier in each case. Looking at the calendar, some observances are scheduled already scheduled for 2022 and 2024.
In any event, as of 4 February 2018 (the most recent update I could find online), Minister Gowda is quoted as saying that they are still awaiting a response from the UN about the IYOM proposal.
Apparently one of the reasons 2018 was proposed for IYOM was that there were no other observances scheduled for that year. However, the same is true for 2020, and moving the proposed IYOM to that year would probably allow enough time to put together a successful campaign and observance for these important but often overlooked grains.
One of the two foods highlighted in my chapter about soybeans in Africa in The World of Soy (published already 8 years ago now) was a pungent West African condiment, traditionally made with “African locust beans” but increasingly with soybeans, and known by various names such as: sumbala, sunbala, or sungala (in Manding); daddawa or dawadawa (in Hausa); iru (in Yoruba); netetu (in Wolof); and ojji (in Fula). The other food was tofu, which is also an interesting development, but here I’ll focus only on the condiment, and the ongoing natural resource issues behind a shift in its main ingredient.
Increasing use of soybeans is a good story, but the decrease in use of locust beans is not, reflecting declining numbers of African locust bean trees due to loss, low regeneration, and little planting, and decreasing production by existing trees where rainfall levels have gone down.
What is sumbala…?
Sumbala – I’ll use the term from Manding here, although I used the Hausa term in the book chapter – is widely used across West Africa to season sauces. The process of making sumbala centers on fermentation of seeds, most commonly those of the African locust bean tree, Parkia biglobosa (among the traditional alternatives is a close relative of the more humid tropics, P. bicolor). More about the tree and what’s happening with it in a moment, but about its seeds – evidently they are quite nutritious. Locust beans have high protein (like distantly related beans) and various other nutrients. The fermentation process, aside from changing taste, also affects the profile of available nutrients.
Production of sumbala – generally done by women as a home-based industry – is a multi-step process from preparing the seeds to boiling them to setting them aside in the proper conditions to ferment (without innoculent to get the fermentation started). The bacteria of the fermentation are in the Bacillus group, primarily Bacillis subtilis (a variety of the latter is also used to ferment soybeans in a somewhat different process to make a Japanese food called nattō 納豆).
The final sumbala product can be seen in local markets as a ball or patty. These may be traded at some distance within the region. Nowadays it is also packaged in a crumbled form for sale in urban markets and for export.
African locust bean tree, or nere
Parkia biglobosa, often called in English African locust bean tree, or more rarely African carob, is common in Africa, and especially West Africa, roughly between 5°N and 15° N latitude – from the edge of tropical forests to the edge of the desert (“mean annual rainfall” of 400-700mm). The tree of course has names in the various languages of the region such as: nɛrɛ or nɛtɛ (Manding); ɗorawa (Hausa); irugba (Yoruba); uul (Wolof); and nareewi or netehi (Fula). “Néré” in French and English comes from the Manding, as evidently do the Fula terms.
Due to its value, the locust bean tree is usually conserved in fields when most other woody plants would be cleared. However it has been noted for a while that natural regeneration is apparently not sufficient to replenish the population – which recent studies from Burkina Faso and Nigeria confirm. Reasons given for this include the harvest of the seeds for sumbala, and loss of seedlings to drought or browsing livestock.
Efforts to plant African locust bean trees are apparently few, even though it is simple to seed directly or produce in nurseries.* One example of planting in southern Burkina Faso is interesting but seems to be limited in scope. It is not clear whether planting this species is part of any large scale project or extension effort, although it was mentioned in a 2010 recommendation of species for the Great Green Wall project.
Another challenge is lower rainfall levels, which aside from affecting survival of seedlings also lower production of seed pods – as observed in another example from Burkina Faso.
Soybeans to the rescue?
It is in this environment, with generally declining availability of locust beans but increasing markets for sumbala, that soybeans emerged as an alternative. This substitution is described in more detail in the book chapter, but it appears to have been an innovation by Nigerian women in the 1980s. I am not aware of any studies of its dissemination – by local networks or projects, nor whether it may have been an innovation in several locations experiencing the same shortage of locust beans. I first learned of this substitution in 1999 while in Mali, and it was treated as a new development – indeed a project had introduced the use of soybeans for sumbala a couple of years earlier.
Soybeans have a couple of advantages for making sumbala, notably as a field crop they can be produced quickly enough to respond to demand, and having thinner seed coats, require less boiling time (hence less firewood in typical production) to prepare for fermentation. On the other hand, soybeans as a field crop require more labor to produce than locust beans, which are simply harvested from trees, and the soy sumbala deteriorates faster in storage.
In terms of taste, opinions I heard were that soy sumbala was comparable to that made with locust beans. However Margaret Shao, in a master’s thesis referencing her research in northern Ghana, found that locust bean sumbala was preferred. And further that because of this, soybeans were sometimes used as filler with locust beans in making sumbala to combine the advantages of both. Beyond that, I have not seen any studies of preferences.
Looking to the future
The Africa locust bean tree is valuable in many ways, of which the use of its seeds for making of sumbala is particularly important. Soybeans are established as a valuable crop and food in West Africa, and have added an important option to producers of sumbala in the face of increased demand for their product and decreased supply of locust beans. The two – soybeans and locust beans – are in a substitution relationship that is relatively novel. But the emergence of soybeans and decline of locust beans does not mean that the former should be expected to supplant the latter as the main ingredient of this West African condiment.
Use of soybeans to produce sumbala, by helping meet demand for the condiment, may actually help reduce pressure on supply of locust beans, thus perhaps indirectly favoring regeneration of the African locust bean tree. However, various factors make reliance on natural regeneration of the African locust bean tree unrealistic. The main hope for maintaining this tree as a component of African dry forests and sustainable source of seeds and other products will have to be its deliberate production and planting both as a tree crop in reforestation projects and as a “food tree” crop in community-level agroforestry.
My only connections with Prof. Mintz were as an undergraduate student years ago in an intro to anthropology course he taught at Johns Hopkins entitled “Human: Being and Becoming,” and of course in the soy project, including a panel presentation at the 8th Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture in Chengdu. There are many more fitting tributes to his life and work. I can only say I was privileged to have learned from him.
* The thick seed coat may require some treatment – “scarification” – to facilitate penetration of water and germination. Manuals recommend several methods including boiling briefly, soaking in sulfuric acid, or physically nicking the seed cover (one study, for example, compares methods). For a moderate production, on the order of 100 as I recall, I used the following simple method in Djenné, Mali during the early 1980s: Soak seeds in water overnight, remove swollen seeds for planting (we produced them in plastic pots in the nursery for later outplanting), return non-swollen seeds to fresh water to soak, with option to nick the outside of the seeds with a pocket-knife to hasten the process.
What exactly are pulses? The IYP 2016 site explains:
Pulses, also known as grain legumes, are a group of 12 crops that includes dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas, and lentils. They are high in protein, fibre, and various vitamins, provide amino acids, and are hearty crops. They are most popular in developing countries, but are increasingly becoming recognized as an excellent part of a healthy diet throughout the world.
Some pulses are also grown for fodder. As legumes, they fix nitrogen in the soil, and as crops, this group of plants apparently requires less water than some other crops like soybeans.
A specific list of the 12 pulse crops is hard to find, however the Wikipedia article helps with a list of FAO’s 11 primary pulses:
Dry beans (Phaseolus spp. including several species now in Vigna)
The word “millet” in English is an inexact term. It can refer to any one of a number of cereals that have roundish grains, of which the four most cultivated worldwide – pearl/bajri, foxtail/xiaomi, proso, and finger/ragi – have been highlighted in the previous posts in this series. It can also refer collectively to all or some selection of them, perhaps including one or more other related grains that aren’t usually thought of as millets – notably sorghum, teff, and fonio. For instance, one overview of millets in Africa discussed pearl millet, finger millet, teff, and fonio. The below diagram of Indian millets, on the other hand, features bajra/pearl millet, ragi/finger millet, thinai/foxtail millet (recall the Chinese name associated with this is xiaomi), and sorghum, along with two others: varagu (kodo millet) and jowar (evidently a variety of sorghum).
Other millets and related grains
The grains of millets and related cereals range in size, with sorghum being the largest, pearl/bajri the next, and then a number of “small millets.” ICRISAT states that there are about a dozen “small millets,” including finger/ragi, foxtail/xiaomi, and proso, which we have already covered, but not including teff or fonio. A list of millets by FAO includes the latter two. A selection of the millets other than the four already profiled, drawn from ICRISAT’s and FAO’s lists as well as other sources, and ordered roughly by size of grain from large to small, are:
Sorghum(Sorghum bicolor) is sometimes also counted as a (large-grained) millet in Africa (where it originated) and the Indian subcontinent. It is a major crop worldwide – fifth overall (after corn/maize, rice, wheat, and barley, and before pearl millet) – grown for its grain and also for animal forage. See profiles in Lost Crops of Africa and the ICRISAT site. It is one of those grains touted as a possible “superfood.”
Kodo millet(Paspalum scrobiculatum), also called rice grass, originated in Africa but is cultivated mainly in India, as well as some countries in Southeast Asia. It apparently has been introduced to the US. Kodo is both wild and cultivated, and more suited to humid/damp habitats. See profiles on the USDA and IUCN Redlist sites.
To make sense of this it might help first to consider these grains together as a “millet spectrum” ranging from large grains (sorghum) to very small (fonio). Yet this spectrum could also be reordered by color (which itself varies considerably within species) or regrouped by:
taxonomy (the website of the Millet Project in California has a simple breakdown by “tribe” within the grass family; note that ragi/finger millet is more closely related to teff than other grains we call millet)
tolerance to drought (bajri being perhaps the best in this category) vs. wet conditions (from the descriptions, kodo may be on the other extreme; sorghum, although adapted to drier conditions, can also support some inundation),
optimal latitudes of cultivation (per the tentative distinction made in the first post of this series between tropical or Afro-Indian millets, and temperate or Eurasian millets)
optimal altitudes of cultivation (ragi, teff, and little millet, for example, being adapted to higher altitudes),
grain structure (sorghum, pearl/bajri, and finger/ragi being more like wheat, and proso, foxtail/xiaomi, fonio, and kodo millet being more like rice in that they have hulls)
nutrient content (varies slightly, as one would expect, but there are some outliers, such as ragi’s calcium content)
flavor (a millet is not a millet when it comes to taste, even if the differences may in some cases be subtle)
To add to this complexity, each of these species has varieties and cultivars with different characteristics and names (for instance the US Alternative Field Crops Manualpage on millets lists and compares several varieties of proso and foxtail). One expression of these differences in many millets, for example, is the color of the grains.
So it is a multifaceted group, which gets back to the original point of this series – to make a practice of distinguishing among the individual plants and, and from a consumer’s point of view, the individual grains. And in so doing, to also call attention to current labeling practices and regulation. But how to distinguish among millets when labeling doesn’t help?
Vive les différences!
Most millets you are likely to encounter are one of the main four discussed in this series of blogposts. Understanding which one you are looking at requires context and familiarity. Context begins with where you are, since different millets tend to be more common in different countries and cultures. In the US, most sold for human consumption is proso, though labels for it, foxtail/xiaomi and pearl/bajri will all indicate the same ingredient: “millet” (the exception seems to be ragi, which in my limited sample is labeled as “finger millet”). In different countries (and markets in the US carrying foods from them), the selection and likelihood of encountering another millet are higher, and the local names used may help disambiguate. Beyond that, characteristics like color or grain size may also help.
For example, when I found packaged millet flour at the Indian Spices store in Falls Church, Virginia, it was only the Indian name “bajri” that confirmed my hunch based on the color of the flour, that this was indeed pearl millet (the otherwise helpful staff did not know, so I did a websearch via smartphone).
As for familiarity, such as knowing the color of pearl millet flour or the relative size of proso and foxtail millets, I can only pass on some observations that give some idea. The following picture, for example, shows the grayish pearl/bajri flour on the left, and the reddish finger/ragi on the right.
Varieties of foxtail/xiaomi and proso that I have seen have yellow grains. I have not seen flour of either, though I imagine it would be difficult to distinguish the two, even as neither could be mistaken for either of the above. However, there is a significant difference in grain size, as illustrated in the following picture.
A quick and very subjective characterization of taste: pearl/bajri, flat; finger/ragi, sharp; proso, round; and foxtail/xiaomi, faint. I find bajri and ragi to have stronger flavors, while xiaomi and proso are blander.
Variety hidden by a name
The purpose of this series of six posts on millets, in which the main four – bajri/pearl, ragi/finger, xiaomi/foxtail, and proso – have been highlighted, is to call attention to the differences among what often get lumped together as a single “millet.” These cereals are not the same, either in the field or on the plate, even if some subsets of the larger group are similar in one or another respect. Their very diversity represents, collectively, a resource for our future as we face both increased demand for food production and a changing climate.
To facilitate thinking about – and marketing of? – these main four millets as separate grains, I’ve suggested borrowing into English some common foreign terms which, like teff or fonio, do not use the word “millet.” A further step would be food labeling that tells consumers more about the identity of the product than just “millet.”
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