Millet Project shows grain isn’t just for the birds

Amrita Hazra, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, is on a mission — to introduce people to the benefits of eating millet, which primarily is used in the United States in bird feed. Leader of the six-member Millet Project team, and with a Berkeley Food Institute Seed Grant and support from the UC Global Food Initiative’s CLEAR Project, Hazra and her colleagues are cultivating millets, testing millet recipes and offering samples of millet-based products at local food events and exhibits.

Field of millet

Sunset over Gill Tract millet field (Photo by Patricia Bubner)

On Sunday, Aug. 30, the UC Berkeley community is invited to an exhibit at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany from noon to 5 p.m. where the Millet Project is operating a small-scale millet farm.

Berkeley News spoke with Hazra about her childhood interest in the intersection between science and food, what’s so special about millet, and why California is the perfect place to grow it.

What is millet, or is it millets? And isn’t it just for the birds?

Millet is the name of a type of grain crop that’s been a staple food for humans in many parts of the world. You say millets when referring to the different types of millet species. And yes, in the United States, indeed, millets are primarily used in grain mixes for various kinds of birds, and they’re also forage crops for cattle and poultry. Today, despite being lesser known in Western society, millets are widely cultivated and consumed in many countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria) and Asia (India, China).

Millets are among the oldest of cultivated grain crops and yet many people haven’t heard about them. Before the popularity of rice, corn and wheat, millet was a staple food, especially in the semi-arid regions of South and East Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. In China, records of domestication of foxtail millet and proso millet date back to approximately 10,000 years ago.

The five millet species commonly grown as commercial crops are proso, foxtail, pearl, Japanese barnyard and browntop — although there are many other types. Proso millet was introduced into the United States from Europe during the 18th century. Today, Colorado is the major U.S. producer, followed by the Dakotas and Nebraska.

Amrita Hazra

Amrita Hazra in front of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (Photo by Jewel Reaso)

What’s so great about millet?

The drought in California is in its fourth year and has brought growers, consumers, policymakers and food activists together. The importance of diversity in agriculture and in the food we consume is becoming apparent — we shouldn’t be only growing water-intensive monocultures. Millets are robust dryland crops — many millet varieties are inherently drought-tolerant.

Millets also are nutritious whole grains that are gluten-free. Different members of the millet family contain different portfolios of nutrients — millet grains often contain lower carbohydrates as compared to rice, corn or wheat, and higher levels of proteins, fiber and certain minerals such calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and iron.

Millets can be grown from seed quite easily at higher temperatures, can grow in skeletal soils and seldom require synthetic fertilizers. They have a short growing period of 100 to 110 days from seed to grain, and as a result are commonly used as rotation crops between the growth of the other crops. Most millet grains are not easily affected by storage pests. And I could go on!

Where does your interest in millet come from?

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I grew up in Pune, India, where my brother and I were raised with science as a lifestyle rather than a subject of study. My father is an organic chemist, and my mother is a plant biologist and biochemist. Our dinner table conversations often evolved informally into extended discussions about the connections between chemistry, plants, biology and food policy. My mother is also a keen kitchen scientist and always inquires about the whats and whys of the science of the food while she cooks. For example, what factors contribute to the uniform puffing of a roti, an Indian wheat flatbread similar to a tortilla when half-cooked on a pan and the finished by putting over an open fire? Is it the proportion of ingredients and process of kneading the dough, the way the flatbread is rolled or the heat retention capacity of the pan’s material? It is yet unknown.

My father’s family members were farmers, and our annual visits to his village in rural West Bengal sparked my curiosity about farming and where our food comes from. My interest in millets was triggered by the availability of various types of grains and lentils in my hometown of Pune. Even when I was growing up, rice and wheat were staples in India, but occasional trips to the many farmers’ markets in the city opened my eyes and mind to the true grassroot level meaning of food diversity.

millet project team

Members of the Millet Project team (left to right): Peggy Lemaux, Amrita Hazra, Pedro Goncalves and Patricia Bubner. (Photo by Di Anna Comrie)

Why is California a perfect place to grow millets?

California is in a drought. And given that a large percentage of the state’s water goes toward agriculture, growing drought-tolerant crops such as millets is a natural first step to diversify agriculture. Growing up in India, I remember eating a type of meal called a “thali.” A thali typically contains between eight and 12 different small portions of vegetable-, lentil-, cereal- and meat-based foods. The idea is to have small portions of a variety of foods to keep a sustained intake of nutrients and micronutrients. But in the United States, growers are mainly cultivating monocultures of a few types of crops, and this is reflected on supermarket shelves and on our plates — big portions of a very small variety of food crops.

Introducing diversity in agriculture in California will be a big step and a model for changing the mindsets of growers and consumers in other parts of the country. The movement has begun — the United Nations recently noted that 2016 will be the “International Year of the Pulses” (beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas), the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization declared quinoa as the grain of the year in 2013, and the Whole Grains Council has celebrated millet and teff (a cereal grain native to northeastern Africa, also a minor millet) as a grain of the month.

The Bay Area also is a hub for igniting new ideas, and food is a big topic of discussion. Berkeley is the perfect place to build such big ideas from the ground up.

What kinds of food and drink can be made with millet?  

Millet

Various varieties of dried millet ears (Photo by Amrita Hazra)

Millet is a staple in many cultures, and there is a rich pool of traditional recipes available from Africa, Asia and Europe. Teff is used for making injera bread in Ethiopia, pearl millet is used in India for bhakri bread, and proso millet is used in regional cuisine in Europe, to make sausages in Austria, and in a breakfast porridge called kasha in Russia and uji in Kenya.

However, we had to do homework to see how to incorporate millet into our modern diets. We’ve learned that one can substitute millet for ingredients like rice, oats, quinoa and couscous in recipes for risotto, porridge, tabouleh, salads and pilaf. You can see some of the recipes we have catalogued on our Millet Project website www.themilletproject.org/recipes/. Also, millets already are in some gluten-free products at the market such as bread and pancake mixes, tortilla chips and beer. If anyone tries using millet in a recipe and likes it, email us, and we’ll put the recipe on our website!

What is the Millet Project?

The Millet Project team’s goal is to diversify agriculture and our diets by cultivating and consuming these lesser-known grains called millets. Corn, wheat and rice comprise at least 80 percent of worldwide cereal production, in spite of the large variety of cereals traditionally available in different parts of the world. This has caused losses in the variety of food and, consequently, the nutrients in our diet, which together have adverse environmental and nutritional impacts.

We have millets currently being farmed in six locations in Northern California. The six of us — Patricia Bubner from the Energy Biosciences Institute, Gavin Abreu from the Haas School of Business, and Pedro Goncalves, Peggy Lemaux, Sarah Hake and me from Plant and Microbial Biology — are the interface between the farmers and consumers; we’re trying to learn from and with these farmers about the different geographical, ecological and soil-related factors that influence millet farming in California.

We also have our own little plot at the Gill Tract Farm where we are doing some preliminary research on how to grow millets under different conditions. We’re growing four different types — foxtail, pearl, proso and Japanese barnyard. So far, proso is the only millet currently available for sale for human consumption in the United States, and we want to expand that. We have a couple rows receiving different amounts of water, and we can see differences in the crop heights and flower production.

This Sunday, Aug. 30, people are invited to the Gill Tract Farm in Albany where we’re having our Millet Project Exhibit. They can see our beautiful fields of millets, meet our Millet Project farmer-collaborators, taste millet-based food, meet a millet beer brewmaster, pick up seeds to plant their own millet and grab millet samples to try out recipes.