Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for both human food and fodder. They do not form a taxonomic group, but rather a functional or agronomic one. Millets are important crops in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa (especially in India, Nigeria, and Niger), with 97% of millet production in developing countries. The crop is favored due to its productivity and short growing season under dry, high temperature conditions.
The most widely grown millet is pearl millet, which is an important sized crop in India and parts of Africa. Finger millet, proso millet, and foxtail millet are also important crop species. In the developed world, millets are less important. For example, in the United States the only significant crop is proso millet, which is mostly grown for bird seed.
While millets are indigenous to many parts of the world, millets most likely had an evolutionary origin in tropical western Africa, as that is where the greatest number of both wild and cultivated forms exist. Millets have been important food staples in human history, particularly in Asia and Africa, and they have been in cultivation in East Asia for the last 10,000 years.
The height of the pearl millet plant may range from 0.5 to 4 metres. The pearl millet grain has great variation, and can be nearly white, pale yellow, brown, grey, slate blue or purple. The kernel shape has five different classifications: obovate, hexagonal, lanceolate, globular, and elliptical. Grains of pearl millet are about 3 to 4 mm long, much larger than those of other millets. The seeds usually weigh between 2.5 and 14 mg, with a typical mean of 8 mg. The size of the pearl millet kernel is about one-third that of sorghum. The relative proportion of germ to endosperm is higher in pearl millet than in sorghum.
The height of finger millet plant ranges from 40 cm to 1 metre, with the spike length ranging from 3 to 13 cm. The colour of finger millet grains may vary from white through orange-red, deep brown, purple, to almost black. The grains are smaller than those of pearl millet. The typical mean weight of finger millet seed is about 2.6 mg.
- Major millets (The most widely cultivated species)
Eragrostideae tribe :
- Eleusine coracana : Finger millet (also known as ragi, nachani or mandwa in India), fourth most cultivated millet.
Paniceae tribe :
- Panicum miliaceum : Proso millet (syn. : common millet, broom corn millet, hog millet or white millet), 3ʳᵈ most cultivated millet.
- Pennisetum glaucum : Pearl millet (also known as bajra in India only in Hindi states), the most cultivated millet.
- Setaria italica : Foxtail millet, second most cultivated millet (also known as "kang or rala" in Maharashtra, India).
- Minor millets
Andropogoneae tribe :
- Coix spp. : Job's tears
Eragrostideae tribe :
- Eragrostis tef : Teff
Paniceae tribe :
- Digitaria spp. : White Fonio, Black Fonio, and Raishan, Polish Millet
- Echinochloa spp. : Japanese barnyard millet, Indian barnyard millet (syn. : sawa millet) (also known as "bhagar" or "varai" in Maharashtra, India), Burgu Millet
- Panicum sumatrense : Little Millet
- Paspalum scrobiculatum : Kodo millet
- Urochloa spp (also known as Brachiaria) : Browntop millet, Guinea millet
Chinese legends attribute the domestication of millet to Shennong, the legendary Emperor of China. Specialized archaeologists called palaeoethnobotanists, relying on data such as the relative abundance of charred grains found in archaeological sites, hypothesize that the cultivation of millets was of greater prevalence in prehistory than rice, especially in northern China and Korea. Millets also formed important parts of the prehistoric diet in Indian, Chinese Neolithic and Korean Mumun societies. Broomcorn (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail millet were important crops beginning in the Early Neolithic of China. For example, some of the earliest evidence of millet cultivation in China was found at Cishan (north). Cishan dates for common millet husk phytoliths and biomolecular components have been identified around 8300–6700 BC in storage pits along with remains of pit-houses, pottery, and stone tools related to millet cultivation. Evidence at Cishan for foxtail millet dates back to around 6500 BC. A 4,000-year-old well-preserved bowl containing well-preserved noodles made from foxtail millet and broomcorn millet was found at the Lajia archaeological site in China.
Palaeoethnobotanists have found evidence of the cultivation of millet in the Korean Peninsula dating to the Middle Jeulmun pottery period (c. 3500–2000 BC) (Crawford 1992; Crawford and Lee 2003). Millet continued to be an important element in the intensive, multicropping agriculture of the Mumun pottery period (c. 1500–300 BC) in Korea (Crawford and Lee 2003). Millets and their wild ancestors, such as barnyard grass and panic grass, were also cultivated in Japan during the Jōmon period some time after 4000 BC (Crawford 1983, 1992).
Millet made its way from China to the Black Sea region of Europe by 5000 BC. The cultivation of common millet as the earliest dry crop in East Asia has been attributed to its resistance to drought, and this has been suggested to have aided its spread.
Pearl millet is one of the two major crops in the semiarid, impoverished, less fertile agriculture regions of Africa and southeast Asia. Millets are not only adapted to poor, droughty, and infertile soils, but they are also more reliable under these conditions than most other grain crops. This has, in part, made millet production popular, particularly in countries surrounding the Sahara Desert in western Africa.
Millets, however, do respond to high fertility and moisture. On a per hectare basis, millet grain produced per hectare can be two to four times higher with use of proper irrigation and sustainable soil supplements. Improved breeds of millets improve their disease resistance and can significantly enhance farm yield productivity. There has been a virtuous cycle of cooperation between poor countries to improve millet yields. For example, 'Okashana 1', a variety developed in India from a natural-growing millet variety in Burkina Faso, doubled yields. This breed was selected for trials in Zimbabwe. From there it was taken to Namibia, where it was released in 1990 and enthusiastically adopted by farmers. Okashana 1 grew to become the most popular variety in Namibia, the only non-Sahelian country where pearl millet - locally known as mahangu - is the dominant food staple for consumers. 'Okashana 1' was then introduced to Chad. The breed has significantly enhanced yields in Mauritania and Benin.
India is the world's largest producer of millets. In the 1970s, all of the millet crops harvested in India were used as food staple. By the 2000s, the annual millets production had increased in India, yet per capita consumption of millets had dropped by between 50% to 75% in different regions of the country. As of 2005, the majority of millets produced in India is being used for alternative applications such as livestock fodder and alcohol production. Indian organizations are discussing ways to increase millet use as food to encourage more production; however, they have found that some consumers prefer the taste of other grains over millet.
In 2010, the average yield of millet crops worldwide was 0.83 tonnes per hectare. The most productive millet farms in the world were in France, with a nationwide average yield of 3.3 tonnes per hectare in 2010.
|Top millet producers — 2009|
|No symbol = official figure, Im = FAO data based on imputation methodology, A = May include official, semiofficial or estimated data
Millets are traditionally important grains used in brewing millet beer in some cultures, for instance by the Tao people of Orchid Island and in Taiwan. Various peoples in East Africa brew a drink from millet or sorghum known as "ajono", a traditional brew of the Teso. The fermented millet is prepared in a large pot with hot water and people share the drink by sipping it through long straws.
Millet is also the base ingredient for the distilled liquor rakshi in Nepal and the indigenous alcoholic drink of the Sherpa, Tamang, Rai and Limbu people, tongba, in eastern Nepal. In Balkan countries, especially Romania and Bulgaria, millet is used to prepare the fermented drink boza.
As a food source
Millets are major food sources in arid and semiarid regions of the world, and feature in the traditional cuisine of many others. In western India, sorghum (called jowar,Jola jwaarie or jondhahlaa in Gujarati, Kannada Hindi and Marathi languages, respectively, or mutthaari kora "pangapullu"in Malayalam), or Cholam in Tamil has been commonly used with millet flour (called bajari in western India) for hundreds of years to make the local staple, hand rolled (that is, without a rolling pin) flat bread (rotla in Gujarati or bhakri in Marathi or roti in other languages). Another cereal grain popularly used in rural areas and by poor people to consume as staple in the form of roti or other forms is called ragi in Karnataka or naachanie in Maharashtra or Kezhvaragu in Tamil, with the popularly made ragi rotti in Kannada. Ragi mudde is a popular meal in southern India. In Telugu, it is called jonnalu (Jonnalu). Jonna is dark like rye, but rougher in texture.
Millet porridge is a traditional food in Russian, German and Chinese сuisines. In Russia, it is eaten sweet (with milk and sugar added at the end of the cooking process) or savoury with meat or vegetable stews. In China, it is eaten without milk or sugar, frequently with beans, sweet potato, and/or various types of squash. In Germany, it is also eaten sweet, boiled in water with apples added during the boiling process and honey added during the cooling process.
Per capita consumption of millets, as food, varies in different parts of the world. It is highest in western Africa. In the Sahel region, millet is estimated to account for about 35% of total cereal food consumption in Burkina Faso, Chad and the Gambia. In Mali and Senegal, millets constitute roughly 40 percent of total cereal food consumption per capita, while in Niger and arid Namibia it is over 65% (See Mahangu). Other countries in Africa where millets are a significant food source include Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda. Millet is also an important food item for the population living in the drier parts of many other countries, especially in eastern and central Africa, and in the northern coastal countries of western Africa. In developing countries outside Africa, millet has local significance as a food in parts of some countries, such as China, India, Burma and North Korea.
The use of millets as food has been falling on per capita basis, between the 1970s and the 2000s, both in urban and rural areas, as developing countries such as India have experienced rapid economic growth and witnessed a significant increase in per capita consumption of other cereals.
People with coeliac disease can replace certain gluten-containing cereals in their diets with millet.
Millets are also used as bird and animal feed.
In addition to be used for seed, millet is also used as a grazing forage crop. Instead of letting the plant reach maturity it can be grazed by stock and is commonly used for sheep and cattle.
Millet is a C4 plant which means it has good water efficiency and utilizes high temperature and is therefore a summer crop. A C4 plant uses a different enzyme in photosynthesis to C3 plants and this is why it improves water efficiency. It produces a 4 carbon rather than 3 carbon hence the name C4 (and C3). Carbon dioxide is fixed twice in C4 plants where as only once in C3 plants.
In southern Australia millet is used as a summer quality pasture, utilizing warm temperatures and summer storms. Millet is frost sensitive and is sown after the frost period, once soil temperature has stabilised at 14°C or more. It is sown at a shallow depth.
Millet grows rapidly and can be grazed 5–7 weeks after sowing, when it is 20–30 cm high. The highest feed value is from the young green leaf and shoots. The plant can quickly come to head, so it must be managed accordingly because as the plant matures the value and palatability of feed reduces.
The Japanese millets (Echinochloa esculenta) are considered the best for grazing and in particular Shirohie, a new variety of Japanese millet, is the best suited variety for grazing. This is due to a number of factors:
- Shirohie gives better regrowth and is later to mature compared to other Japanese millets
- It is cheap – cost of seed is $2–$3 per kg and sowing rates are around 10 kg per hectare for dryland production.
- It is quick to establish
- It can be grazed early
- It is suitable for both sheep and cattle
Shirohie millet should not be overgrazed, and there is a risk of photosensitisation, so it is important to observe stock grazing millet regularly for symptoms which include enlarged ears (floppy), seeking shade, looking agitated or uncomfortable, constant head movement. Animals should be removed if any signs of photosensitisation occur.
When introducing animals to new forage do so slowly and over a few days not when they are hungry to avoid digestive problems.
Compared to forage sorghum, which is grown as an alternative grazing forage, animals gain weight faster on millet and it has better hay or silage potential, although it produces less dry matter. Lambs do better on millet compared to sorghum. Millet does not contain prussic acid which can be in sorghum. Prussic acid poisons animals by inhibiting oxygen utilisation by the cells and is transported in the blood around the body — ultimately the animal will die from asphyxia. There is no need for additional feed supplements such as sulphur or salt blocks with millet.
The rapid growth of millet as a grazing crop allows flexibility in its use. Farmers can wait until sufficient late spring / summer moisture is present and then make use of it. It is ideally suited to irrigation where livestock finishing is required.
Millets, like sorghum, are predominantly starchy. The protein content is comparable to that of wheat and maize. Pearl and little millet are higher in fat, while finger millet contains the lowest fat. Barnyard millet has the lowest carbohydrate content and energy value. Millets are also relatively rich in iron and phosphorus. The bran layers of millets are good sources of B-complex vitamins. However, millets also feature high fiber content and poor digestibility of nutrients, which severely limit their value in nutrition and influence their consumer acceptability.
Finger millet has the highest calcium content among all the foodgrains, but it is not highly assimilable.
The protein content in millet is very close to that of wheat; both provide about 11% protein by weight, on a dry matter basis.
Millets are rich in B vitamins (especially niacin, B6 and folic acid), calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Millets contain no gluten, so they are not suitable for raised bread. When combined with wheat (or xanthan gum for those who have celiac disease) they can be used for raised bread. Alone, they are suited for flatbread.
As none of the millets are closely related to wheat, they are appropriate foods for those with celiac disease or other forms of allergies/intolerance of wheat. However, millets are also a mild thyroid peroxidase inhibitor and probably should not be consumed in great quantities by those with thyroid disease.
Comparison with other major staple foods
The following table shows the nutrient content of millet compared to major staple foods in a raw form. Raw forms, however, are not edible and cannot be fully digested. These must be prepared and cooked as appropriate for human consumption. In processed and cooked form, the relative nutritional and antinutritional contents of each of these grains is remarkably different from that of raw forms reported in this table. The nutrition value in cooked form depends on the cooking method.
|Synopsis ~ composition:||Cassava||Wheat||Rice||Sweetcorn||Potato||Sorghum
(per 100g portion, raw grain)
|pantothenic acid (mg)||0.1||0.9||1.0||0.7||0.3||<0.9||0.8|
|Crop / Nutrient||Protein(g)||Fiber(g)||Minerals(g)||Iron(mg)||Calcium(mg)|
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- raw, uncooked
- hard red winter
- white, long-grain, regular, raw, unenriched
- sweet, yellow, raw
- white, flesh and skin, raw
- Sorghum, edible portion white variety
- Millet, proso variety, raw
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Millet.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Millet.|
- "Millets". Alternative Field Crops Manual.
- "Vegetarians in Paradise: Millet History, Millet Nutrition, Millet Recipe".