In mid-2018, India subsequently advocated having the IYOM in 2019, which 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simply “millet”) are several related grains that have been discussed at some length on this blog (see tag millets, plus an archived version of a post from another site).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.
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.”
Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) is the fourth millet to be profiled in this series and the third most widely produced in the world. It may have originated in what is now northeastern China, but spread to other parts of Asia and to Europe in ancient times.
Other English names include broom corn or broom corn millet, broomtail millet, and quite a few others according to US National Plant Germplasm System (though curiously their list does not include “proso”) and Wikipedia. Various color names are associated with this millet – red, brown, white – with “yellow proso” being the variety commonly sold for human consumption in the US (interestingly, the Chinese word for hulled proso millet, 黃米 huángmǐ, also refers to yellow color). According to one source, the term “edible millet” in the US refers to proso, and the term “common millet” is sometimes also applied, though that is problematic on several levels. The name “proso” comes from several Slavic languages (in the Cyrillic script it is просо).
Proso is the most adapted of the four main millets to northern climates, being the main millet cultivated in Russia and the US. Like other millets, it can be grown on poorer soils. Although pearl millet/bajri and foxtail millet/xiaomi are produced more worldwide, proso is actually more important on the world import/export market.
Proso only relatively recently became important in the US – during the 19th century, foxtail millet was more widely cultivated (mainly for forage). And production has also increased in recent years – a 2003 crop profile noted a dramatic increase over the preceding decade. The main use of proso in the US is for birdseed, and to lesser degrees as forage and as a food for people.
There’s millet, and then there’s millet
In 1987, when I had just come back to the US after spending 7 out of the preceding 8 years overseas – and 6 ½ of those in West Africa where I got to know pearl millet as “millet” – I went to the local East Lansing Food Coop, near where I had moved in Michigan, and found a bulk “millet” for sale. Surprised, since I had never seen “millet” before in an American foodstore – but also noting that the grains were smaller than what I had seen in Africa, and yellow instead of a duller, almost gray color – I bought some to try. Nothing like what I remembered.
I later found out that this was in fact an entirely different species of millet, usually called proso. Fast forward almost three decades to suburban Washington, DC, and bulk proso millet is still sold as “millet” (or actually “hulled millet” since proso is one of those millets that need to be hulled) in organic foods stores (photos below from Whole Foods and MOM’s Organic Market in northern Virginia).
Proso millet is also sold in packages, but packaged products with “millet” in the list of ingredients are not necessarily proso millet. How to tell the difference will be one of the topics in the next post, “Four millets: More grains and the ‘millet spectrum.’”
Foxtail millet(Setaria italica) is the oldest cultivated millet, the most important in East Asia, and the second most cultivated worldwide. It is believed to have been domesticated first in China, with evidence of cultivation going back about 8700 years. The species name as well as some vernacular names reflect its historic significance in Europe.
Other English names include Italian millet, German millet, Hungarian millet, and dwarf or giant setaria. The Mandarin Chinese name for this grain is commonly said to be 小米 (xiǎomǐ), which literally means “little rice.” Chinese nomenclature for cultivated millets is actually quite complex, but xiaomi apparently refers to the hulled grain of foxtail millet (among the common names for this species and varieties of it are 谷子 gŭzǐ & 粟 sù). There are of course many names in the various languages spoken where foxtail millet is cultivated – one name from India that I’ve come across is thinnai or tenai.
Xiaomi can be cooked in soup or porridge, or as one would cook rice. I find the taste milder than the previous two millets (bajri and ragi). There are glutinous varieties of this grain (seen in a market as 糯小米 nuò xiǎomǐ). Like rice, but unlike the bajri, ragi, or wheat, the grain needs to be hulled to cook – which is how it is sold, such as in the package shown on the left.
As a crop it has a wide range, cultivated across much of Asia and Europe, though as a minor crop in most of the latter. In the US it is mainly grown as animal feed and for birdseed. Interestingly, cultivation of foxtail millet in the central US increased dramatically after 1850 until it was the most widely cultivated millet in the country by the end of the century (the introduction of sudangrass as a forage crop led to a decline in cultivation of foxtail; no figures found on current foxtail vs. proso production in US).
Like other millets foxtail millet is tolerant of drought and can produce on poor soils in a short season (60-90 days for this one). On the other hand, some sources indicate its production does not benefit much from fertilizers or irrigation.
(Thanks to Jens Østergaard Petersen for his help with sources for Chinese names for millets. Needless to say, the interpretations above are mine.)
Other English names for finger millet include eleusine, caracan millet, koracan, and apparently also “pampered corn.” The color of the grain and its flour is reddish (compared to the grayish appearance of previously profiled pearl millet), so yet another name is red millet. It of course has names in the languages of regions where people cultivate it, and of these probably the most common is one used widely in South Asia, “ragi“: रागी (Hindi & Rajasthani); ರಾಗಿ (Kannada); ராகி (Tamil); రాగి (Telugu); راگی (Urdu).
Although finger millet/ragi is apparently cultivated in parts of West Africa, I don’t recall ever seeing or eating it there. It was in Uganda that I first encountered it in the form of a non-alcoholic “millet” drink called “bushera” (a photo of a can of marketed locally is shown on left). It tasted a bit different than what I would have expected from the pearl millet I already knew (even allowing for some sorghum content in the beverage). There are also fermented beers – including an alcoholic version of bushera – made with this grain.
Unfortunately I did not have the chance to try any dishes prepared with finger millet from East Africa. One major use is in porridge (for two different takes on finger millet porridge with reference to Africa, see here & here).
Various sources indicate that production in Africa declined for many years in favor of crops like corn/maize, but that it is on the rise again with some help from projects (Worldwatch has a good overview, even if a bit dated, and an African Research Institute article gives a good case study from Zimbabwe).
the ragi grain is malted and the grains are ground and consumed, mixed with milk, boiled water or yogurt. Also, the ragi flour is made into flatbreads, including thick, leavened dosa and thinner and even unleavened rotis. It can be ground and cooked into cakes, puddings or porridges, Or, the grain is even fermented and converted to a drink (or beer) in Nepal and in many parts of Africa.
The Pinterest site features a collection of recipes, many of which seem from a quick look to be from South Asia.
Ragi is cultivated notably in Karnataka, Kerela, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamilnadu provinces of India. Production levels have evidently been declining slowly over the last 20 years, but it is still a major crop. (A fact sheet on ragi culture may be of interest.)
Personal use in the U.S.
Not long after I found bajri flour in a local Indian food market, I decided to experiment with ragi from the same store – main object being something new to try for breakfasts (my responsibility on weekdays). As with bajri, I tried this with a breakfast oatmeal cooked with some ragi flour added. I found this grain has a relatively strong taste, almost tangy compared to the other millets. Also tried it with whole wheat in a bread, which worked out well, and tried a pre-made ragi crêpe mix, which was not as successful (probably user error). A ragi breakfast cereal was also interesting.
Given its nutritional profile and unique taste, ragi seems to stand out among the millets, meriting the moniker “super grain.” (A web search will turn up a number of articles on ragi / finger millet as a super grain, as well as a number of others grouping millets together as one super grain.)
As a crop, ragi is drought hardy like many other millets, and is adapted to high altitudes and diverse climates. It requires much less soil nitrogen to produce, but evidently responds well to fertilizer (not a given with all crops). On the other hand, management and harvest are labor intensive. All together, however, one could imagine that ragi has an important future as a crop and food in regions like the US that do not yet know it well.