You may not have heard much about millets yet. But a team of UC Berkeley scientists and California farmers is working hard to change that. They say the time for these ancient grains is now, and the culinary possibilities and marketability potential are hard to beat.
To learn more about millets, I turned to The Millet Project at UC Berkeley, where they agreed to answer a few questions:
What are millets? Why are they a nutritious food alternative?
“Millet” is not a botanical term for a certain type of plant, but rather an umbrella term for various small seeded grasses used for human and animal consumption. There are many different millets: including proso, pearl, foxtail, kodo, japanese… and even teff, a staple in Ethiopian flatbread.
This diverse family of grains is gluten-free and often contains lower carbohydrate content than rice, corn or wheat, as well as higher levels of protein, fiber and minerals, such calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and iron.
The wide variety of millets, each with its own distinctive taste, makes it a versatile grain for cooking and brewing. They can be used in a variety of ways – from dumplings to a rice replacement, from a salad topping to a great treat in cookies. Millets can also be brewed into tasty beers, or made into breakfast porridge.
The Millet Project website has lots of recipes.
Corn, wheat and rice comprise at least 89 percent of worldwide cereal production. Why aren’t we eating more millet?
Millets are ancient grains. In fact, common millet was the earliest dry farming crop domesticated in East Asia 10,000 years ago, and it then spread extensively over East Asia and the Eurasian continent.
Today, however, its large-scale cultivation and consumption are restricted to only certain countries in Southeast Asia, Western Africa and Eastern Europe. Cultivation and consumption of millets in the U.S. and Western Europe are scarce. Much of this occurred due to the rise of industrial agriculture in developed countries over the last century.
The agricultural landscape in developed countries today is dominated by monoculture with little diversity in crop species. This is due in part because certain cereal crops, like corn, wheat and rice, have been bred for higher yields over the last few decades, but other crops, such as millets, have not been optimized for higher production.
Due to this focus on yield improvement in the major crops, farming equipment and practices were developed for high-output farming of these crops to provide the massive amounts of food and feed needed for humans and livestock. Food technology was developed to process these grains into a variety of packaged foods that fill our supermarket shelves.
Growth in urban populations, as well as economic pressures, has affected the number of farmers growing food. This means each farm and farmer must grow more food and feed, raising the pressure for increased production levels. In all of this, diversity in agriculture and our diets has received a backseat, and millets are slowly losing visibility in the agricultural landscape. It is time to revive this ancient grain and add back diversity in our agricultural system and in our diets.
Why should farmers consider growing millets?
In the face of climate change, millets are grown easily from seed at higher temperatures and with less water. They produce acceptable yields in poor soil quality without the addition of synthetic fertilizers and they have a relatively short growing period. Most millet grains also are not easily affected by storage pests.
The Millet Project began in 2015 during the peak of the California drought. This brought growers, consumers, policy makers and food activists together to discuss this pressing issue, while considering the importance of diversity in agriculture. There was pressure to think beyond the cultivation of monoculture crops, which historically require large water inputs.
Millets have historically been cultivated in hot, dry climates and are known for their drought tolerance and low input cultivation. It is an excellent crop for farmers to incorporate into their farm. The Millet Project completed two seasons of millet growth trials in California (May – Aug, 2015 and 2016), testing the effects of drought conditions on millet varieties, compared to corn. Millets were found to be much more drought-tolerant than corn.
With expected climate changes, farmers need to look for crops that require fewer inputs, like water and fertilizer, but are still nutritionally dense. We have collaborated successfully with several farmers in northern and central California, who have reported positive experiences with millets, especially as we began connecting them with producers of millet foods.
Although only two millet varieties (proso and teff) are currently being grown in sizeable amounts in the U.S., there is increasing demand for nutritious specialty grains in the market today. Millets can fill this demand and a number of different millet varieties could gain acceptance in the market soon, which will drive more farmers to try growing this amazing grain.
How was The Millet Project created?
Amrita Hazra conceived the idea for The Millet Project in 2014 while participating in a postdoctoral fellowship in the Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) Department at UC Berkeley. The project was given “seed funding” from the Berkeley Food Institute and through the Global Food Initiative’s CLEAR project. Amrita formulated the initial team with Sarah Hake (faculty in PMB), Gavin Abreu (former student at UCB’s Haas Business School) and Patricia Bubner (postdoc in PMB). She also worked closely with Peggy Lemaux, faculty in PMB and specialist with UC Agriculture & Natural Resources.
Amrita and Patricia have been farming millets themselves and with collaborators since 2015, educating themselves about food systems and interacting with farmers, nutrition experts, scientists, food manufacturers, journalists, chefs, food activists and other experts to learn everything they can about the grains.
The team has grown with postdocs and graduate and undergraduate students, like Pedro Gonçalves, Becky Mackelprang, Martin Alexander, George Chuck and Hailey Zhu. The Millet Project team has organized countless public outreach events, spoken on radio shows and had articles written about millet.
Small-scale farming trials have expanded as well, with a growing number of Northern California and Central Valley farmers agreeing to grow millet in the upcoming third year (2017).
With their efforts and those of our farmer collaborators, we have learned more about millets’ drought tolerance and fertilizer requirements, assessing their feasibility for California agriculture. We also are learning about the new field of the root microbiome, the community of microorganisms that inhabit the soils around the roots and provide certain benefits to the plant. This work is in collaboration with Devin Coleman-Derr, faculty member in PMB.
The Millet Project researchers also farm millet themselves at the UC Gill Tract in Albany – testing drought tolerance in different millets under controlled watering conditions.
How have farmers involved in The Millet Project responded to growing the crop?
The farmers found millets relatively easy to grow and, through their efforts, they helped The Millet Project develop general protocols for growing millets in California’s diverse climates. Farmers also helped identify challenges they encountered, such as weeds, birds and harvesting.
Harvesting grain is challenging without the proper equipment, and the equipment that some have for larger grains, like corn and soy, cannot be used. Most of our farmers are now including millet in regular crop schemes, and are starting to use and sell some harvested grain from their test plots. As word spreads about the advantages of growing millet, new farmers have joined to try out this new grain.
What are some of the biggest challenges (if any) of increasing millet production? How do you hope to address these concerns?
The biggest challenge to getting farmers to produce more millet is to increase consumption. Farmers often make decisions to grow a crop based on how easily and profitably they will be able to sell what they produce. If people begin consuming more millet, farmers will grow more millet – a simple economic reality.
The Millet Project is committed to exposing new consumer audiences to the nutritional and environmental benefits of millet and other lesser-known grains.
Achieving such a goal takes time. People often require a number of times eating something new, prepared in different ways, before they attempt to bring it into their own homes for their families.
As individuals become more familiar with the benefits of consuming and growing millet, our researchers believe demand will rise, spurring increased farmer interest and crop production. As that demand increases, our researchers will be prepared with the necessary data on growing millet in the microclimates across California to give new millet farmers the best opportunities for success.
Is there anything that you’d like to add?
The Millet Project takes a multifaceted approach to address the problems of loss of crop diversity, industrial agriculture and the need for diversity in our diets. As a diverse, international team, we are connecting the science we have learned with those who grow our food and those who consume it. Each of us brings experiences with regard to culture, crops, farming and nutrition. As academic researchers, we hope consumers and farmers will take note of the objective and accurate information we provide, which is independent of corporate interests or profit motives.
Through our comprehensive approach, we are addressing issues from farm to table. We are working to increase the supply of and demand for millets. We want to make millets accessible and affordable for a broader community.
The Millet Project is positioned to align the goals and priorities of: 1) farmers, who want to sell the products they produce, while maintaining healthy farms and soil, 2) restaurant owners, bakers and other food manufacturers, who want to source local, high-quality, healthy ingredients, and 3) consumers, who are becoming more conscious about the environmental, social and health consequences of dietary choices.
Next up? The Millet Project aims to establish a global network of individuals and initiatives, dedicated to and specialized in addressing the major issues facing grain cultivation, such as climate change, depleting soil quality, monoculture cropping and poor consumption choices, like poor nutrition and lack of diversity.
Millets were traditionally cultivated in large amounts in India and Africa. However, in many of these areas, millet farming has declined or has already been abandoned in favor of industrialized monocultures. To address this issue, The Millet Project researchers have already started to expand their efforts into India, Austria, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The versatility of millet as a food makes it ideal for targeting a broad consumer base worldwide.