“Wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!”

Gary Larson, The Complete Far Side, 1980–1994

Food grains, staples, geographies, and eco-friendliness. With a slight modification in your diet, you, too, can be more eco-friendly while also improving your health. Here are some grasses that can help!

If it weren’t for grasses, we wouldn’t be around. It’s all fine to show pictures of cows, deer, and goats and so on at the bottom of the food chain or pyramid, the herbivores, as the primary consumers. We should actually show humans also as eaters of grasses! Well their seeds, actually.

I remember reading somewhere that if you take away all the things that humans achieved – landing on the moon, inventing amazing technologies, and so on – life on Earth comes down to two basic facts: (1) the fact that a few millimeters of soil (topsoil, as it is called) exists, and (2) the fact that it rains (or not). To these, I would add a third item: the fact that there are grasses! How do we figure this? Our staple grains – rice and wheat – are two kinds of grasses.

In southern India, rice is a major staple (basic, necessary item) food grain. But that is not true everywhere. In northern Karnataka, for example, the main grasses are millets of various kinds. And millets are what I want to talk about today.

Dishy dishes

Recently, a friend of mine told me about why I should eat millets. Put simply: (1) it is good for your health, and (2) it is good for the environment.

As a south Indian, I have grown up on rice. And some wheat. Very rarely, I have eaten raagi (in the form of raagi rotti or muddey). And raagi is a kind of millet. Most of us eat polished rice – where the husk is taken off and even a coating on the rice grain is removed. The ideal is rice that is like malligay (jasmine) flowers – white and loose (not sticky). This is nutritionally not very good for us.

In contrast, millets are generally considered to have better nutritional value for us. This idea has taken such a hold that millet-eating has become somewhat of a fad – popular imagination has millets as wonder-foods that keep you healthy, fight colds, cancer, and diabetes, etc.

Some people warn that millets are actually not good for us, and that we should not eat millets as our only grains. This is good advice in that it is generally good to eat a variety of grains for health. Hence, succumbing to fads is bad.

Good for the environment?

Some people say that compared to rice, millets take hardly any water to cultivate. Rice requires vast amounts of water. (Consider the map in the “Things you can do” section and you will see the geographical connection between water availability and rice cultivation.) This is quite true.

Millets do not demand as much water and therefore their geographical distribution is the way it is (see the maps linked in “Things you can do” below). Some people argue that consuming more millets by large numbers of people can help reduce the dependency on rice and, thus, reduce water consumption. They may have a point there, but it is hard to imagine this because food habits are not entirely logical. In my own case, I admit that, for a long time, I did not like the idea of regularly consuming any kind of millets because I had decided that I didn’t like their taste.

Now, I have taken to millets quite well and can prepare a few simple dishes with different kinds of millets – that wonderful Kannadiga creation bisi-baylay-bhaath; uppumaa; khaaraa-bhaath; and even sajjigey (sheera, kesari bhaath).

My own basis for eating millets – along with wheat and rice – is mainly the nutritional value that I get out of it. I hope it also actually contributes to something positive in the environment, but I don’t know about this for sure. It also supports farmers in semi-arid areas who grow millets.

Moisture regimes

I just mentioned semi-arid. Let me ask you to remember these terms you may have already studied in your geography or EVS classes: humid areas, semi-arid, and arid areas. This diagram can help you understand the nature of the relationships to rainfall and potential evapo-transpiration. This is a very crude way of showing it, but it gives you a very general idea.


Some common millets and their names.

Source: Chitra’s Food Book (http://bit.ly/1TW0uG7)
You can also find many millet recipes at this and other sites.

Finger millet Nachani /mundua Kezhvaragu Ragi Ragula Panji pullu
Kodo millet Koden/Kodra Varagu Harka Arikelu Koovaragu
Foxtail millet Kangni/Rala Thinai Navane Korra Thina
Little millet Kutki Saamai Saame Sama Chama
Barnyard millet Jhangora Kuthiravali Oodalu Odalu Kavadapullu
Pearl millet Bajra Kambu Sajje Sajjalu Kambam
Sorghum Jowar Cholam Jola Jonna Cholam

Source: Chitra’s Food Book (http://bit.ly/1TW0uG7)

Things you can do:

  1. Check out this large map of areas of the world where millets are grown.
    (Click to enlarge the map; it will open in a new tab / window)Milletoutput
    Image source: Wikimedia ( http://bit.ly/1t5wwmN )
    What geographical factors do these regions have in common?
  2. Look at this map of agricultural crops in India:
    India-major crops
    Image source: Wikimedia (http://bit.ly/1TW26j5)
    Which geographical factors seem to be related to this distribution? (Examples: latitude, altitude, topography, etc. These lead to other kinds of variations … What are these?) You will have to find maps of these geographical factors to answer this.
  3. Here is a list of major millet-producing countries. What geographical factors do they have in common? (This is similar to #1 above; but a smaller number of countries and therefore greater detail should be possible. Use your atlas for this.)
    millet countries table
    Source: Wikipedia ( http://bit.ly/1t5xKia )
  4. Make a list of other grasses from which we derive foodstuffs. You may be surprised at some of the items that may appear on your list!
  5. Can you make a case for increasing consumption of millets in our diets: nutritionally and environmentally?
  6. Try making a millet dish at home and see if you like it enough to make a regular part of your diet. Work with an adult in this, so that they can guide you to do this safely! There are many simple millet recipes on the internet.
  7. If you do try #5 or #6 above, write a brief geographical essay and send it to us.

A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 09 June 2016

Featured image credit: By AndrewMT – Own work, CC BY 3.0


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