This question comes up very often when taking about millets – were millets really staple grains in our ancestors’ diets?
For the sake of being informed about our history, let us dive into the Q of whether our ancestors ate millets as a staple.
That paddy needs more water, fertile soil and protection from pests is not something that has happened today. It has been historically true. That millets need very little water, grow in harsh conditions, in substandard soils and are pest resistant is also true.
And at any point in time we see, there has been a small proportion of land that was highly fertile, a larger proportion of land that was low on fertility and a much larger proportion of land that was pretty much uncultivable soil.
Superimposing these conditions and crop facts, it is beyond doubt in my mind that millets were cultivated on much larger swathes of land, and harvested in much larger quantities than paddy until very recently. Yes, I do see that my argument is not based on hard evidences. If you can see some flaw in the logic / suppositions, please do share so that I can correct myself.
The other aspect of this Q, is who were our ancestors. If we are from the privileged upper castes, or ancestors would have controlled the more fertile soils, cultivated the more sophisticated crops (such as paddy) and stored and processed them better.
If we are not so privileged and are born in one of lower castes, a dalit or an adivasi, then our ancestors would, very likely, not have had the resources that a crop such as paddy would require. But we would not have had much problem in growing millets.
We ate what we could grow. Millets were the staple of the masses. Paddy was the staple of the privileged. There are stories of how poor farmers and labourers cultivated paddy (or wheat) and millets along with other grains and produce. They would have to turn in all the paddy or wheat they had harvested to the land lords/zamindars/rich men and were allowed to keep only the millets they grew for their family’s consumption.
Food is aspirational, not just today, not just in India. Paddy has always been the food of those who have; of the privileged.
On a related note, if we are ready to be generous when considering the policy makers’ intentions in the lead up to the green revolution, this last point above is a very strong reason to choose to promote paddy and not millets. More on that in another post.
Do share your thoughts and comments.
6 thoughts on “Were millets really the staple grains of our ancestors?”
While the logic behind most of what you have said in this post is irrefutable, is it also not true that the commonly consumed strains of wheat and rice today need more fertilisers, pesticides and water than ever before? In turn are these chemicals not the predominant cause for the wide spread diseases such as constipation, acidity, high blood pressure, diabetes and so on? Are these diseases not common to all sections of the society regardless of rich and poor, upper and lower caste and so on? Can we still preserve the biodiversity of foods and continue to consume the present day strains of rice and wheat knowing fully well that the food processing industry is producing a host of convenience foods by poisoning what little good is left in the present day wheat and rice strains? Also has not the retailing mechanism left the consumer with no choice to pick strains of rice and wheat? Can consumers, especially in urban India, really understand and choose the right rice and wheat?
There are no cures to the ‘life style’ diseases these strains of rice and wheat cause and the cost of ‘managing’ such diseases is difficult for our country to afford. Noble thoughts are probably best kept aside and all efforts to bring millets into the mainstream is the only practical way out of the disastrous situation we are sitting on.
Marginal farmers are being enticed into growing mono crops such as GT cotton which destroy their agricultural lands in a few short years after which the corporates who encourage them to do so methodically move on to ruin other parts of the country’s top soil for their short term gains. As a result lakhs of such farmers have committed suicide in Vidharba region alone. These farmers were engaged in growing millets predominately before the advent of such mono crops such as GT cotton for large corporations.The millets grown by the same farmers were commonly consumed by the rich and poor of the region alike.
These are difficult questions and dedicated social workers such as yourself are the only hope for speaking up pragmatically and boldly.
After all todays food may not be as aspirational as one would like to believe.
Please correct me if my beliefs are misplaced.
Yes, it is true.
Very likely that they are.
They are common to all and the poor and the oppressed classes suffer more than the rich and the upper castes.
We are running a charade of conservation by making it a subject in school, the point of a rally and not looking at what we are eating, what we are paying money to buy. No need to even go to what the food processing industry is doing because the varieties have been bred to serve them not the consumers. So the damage is deep even without considering convenience foods.
They can, if they cared. And we can replace ‘paddy rice and wheat’ with any fruit, vegetable, greens, meat, and this statement would still hold true.
I believe in and am working to see conscious decisions – educate, organize, agitate. What is practical and what is not is something that each one of us has to judge to our (limited) capacities.
Mono cropping and maximising yield came way way before GM did. Yes, the steps to promote GM crops is violence of the next order – both on the farmers and on the ecology. But the foundation was laid in treating agriculture as just a source of food grains for humans alone. Just as dairy farming for milk alone is now further wrecking the very fibre of society and ecology.
Thank you for the encouraging words. Social workers or not, there still are people who speak, eat, live their beliefs and real world compromises. I see myself on such a path and I do try to identify (and share) what these beliefs and compromises are.
Humans are aspirational. We look for the things we do not have. I believe and am working to direct this energy towards sustainable solutions and processes.
I have presented my point of view. I feel it is up to you to decide whether you should hold on to your beliefs or change. It is not for me to insist and I shall not.
Thank you for this discussion! I really appreciate it.
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Thank you for bringing this discussion to the public forum Dwiji
If people contribute to this and share their views & experiences it will serve as a truly useful knowledge base
I for believe that a good way to rid ourselves of the so called lifestyle diseases is to simply understand what we eat/drink and make a conscious decision
This can save farmers and the consumers of everyday foods without lifting a finger to fight the high and mighty who have brought the disease creating foods/drinks into our lives
I agree Amar. Thank you for the comments … look forward to more – comments and work !
How do you say that there are right strains in paddy and wheat, they could be picked by consumers if they cared. What is the right strain in them. Elaborate
Thank you for the question Balan.
There are two decision points for a consumer even today when selecting to eat paddy rice – (1) polished or unpolished and (2) hybrid or traditional variety.