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UN eyes millet revival as global grain uncertainty rises


RUSHINGA, Zimbabwe – As other residents of her Zimbabwean village agonize over a seemingly failed maize crop, Jestina Nyamukunguvengu takes a hoe and chops the ground from her verdant fields with a crop of pearl millet in the arid district of Rushinga in the African country. .

“These crops are not affected by drought, they flower quickly and that’s the only way to beat the drought,” the 59-year-old said with a broad smile. Millets, including sorghum, now occupy more than two hectares of his land – a plot where maize was once the crop of choice.

Farmers like Nyamukunguvengu in the developing world are at the forefront of an Indian-proposed project that has led the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to christen 2023 as the ‘Year of Millet’ , an effort to revive a robust and healthy crop that had been cultivated for millennia – but was largely discarded by European settlers who favored corn, wheat and other grains.

This designation is timely: last year, drought swept through much of East Africa; the war between Russia and Ukraine is disrupting supplies and driving up the prices of foodstuffs and fertilizers from Europe’s breadbasket; concerns have grown over the environmental fallout from agricultural shipments around the world; many chefs and consumers are looking to diversify their diets at a time when prices are too standardized.

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

Millets come in several varieties, such as finger millet, fonio, sorghum and teff, which is used in the spongy injera bread familiar to lovers of Ethiopian cuisine. Proponents tout millets for their health — they can be high in protein, potassium and vitamin B — and most varieties are gluten-free. And they’re versatile: useful in everything from bread, cereal and couscous to pudding and even beer.

Over the centuries, millets have been grown all over the world – in places like Japan, Europe, the Americas and Australia – but their epicenters have always been India, China and sub-Saharan Africa. , said Fen Beed, FAO team leader for urban crops and mechanization systems.

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

Millets are more tolerant of poor soils, 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 cereals, making them ideal for places like Africa’s arid Sahel region, and their deep-rooted varieties like fonio can help alleviate desertification, the process that turns fertile soil into desert, often due to drought. or deforestation.

“Fonio is nicknamed the culture of the Lazy Farmers. That’s how easy it is to grow,” says Pierre Thiam, executive chef and co-founder of New York-based fine-dining and casual dining chain Teranga, which offers West African cuisine. “When the first rains come, the farmers just have to go out and just throw the fonio seeds… They barely plow the soil.”

“And it’s also a fast-growing crop: it can mature in two months,” he said, acknowledging that not everything is easy: “Fonio processing is very difficult. The skin must be removed before it becomes edible.

According to the FAO, millet accounts for less than 3% of world cereal trade. But the culture develops in certain arid zones. In the district of Rushinga, the land devoted to millet has almost tripled over the last decade. The United Nations World Food Program deployed dozens of threshers and provided seed packets and training to 63,000 small-scale farmers in drought-prone areas during the previous season.

Low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, partly due to climate change, coupled with poor soils, have extinguished interest in water-intensive maize.

“You will find that those who have grown maize are those who are asking for food aid, those who have grown sorghum or pearl millet are still eating their small grains,” said Melody Tsoriyo, the district agronomist, alluding to small crops. grains such as millets, whose seeds can be as fine as sand. “We predict that in five years, small grains will overtake corn.”

Government teams in Zimbabwe have deployed to remote rural areas, inspecting crops and providing expert assistance, for example through WhatsApp groups, to disseminate technical knowledge to farmers.

WFP spokesman Tatenda Macheka said millets are “helping us reduce food insecurity” in Zimbabwe, where about a quarter of the people in the country of 15 million – long a breadbasket of Southern Africa – are now food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from.

In urban areas of Zimbabwe and far beyond, restaurants and hotels have taken on the new impression that a millet meal offers a touch of class and have made it more expensive on their menus.

Thiam, the American chef, recalls eating fonio as a child in the southern Casamance region of Senegal, but worried that it was not often available in his hometown – the capital – and still less in New York. He once “naively” admitted to having dreamed of turning what is known in rural Senegal as “the grain of royalty” – served to honor visiting guests – into a “world-class crop”.

He has reduced his ambitions a bit, but still sees a future for small grains.

“It’s truly amazing that you can have a speck like this that’s been ignored for so long,” Thiam said in an interview from his home in El Cerrito, Calif., where he moved to be close to his family. wife and her family. “It’s time we got it into our diet.”

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

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

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