For Pakistan's Climate-Challenged Food Security, Can Super Food Bajra Prove To Be A Tonic?

Rising temperatures and climate change is likely to impact wheat production, particularly in Sindh. But can a centuries old crop resurface as a saviour?

For Pakistan's Climate-Challenged Food Security, Can Super Food Bajra Prove To Be A Tonic?

When last year's flood waters finally receded from most of the affected parts of the country, one of the major concerns in the aftermath of an extreme climate change event was the impact it could have on national food security. While many rightly predicted the excessive rains would eventually result in higher yields for major crops, climate-stressed southeastern regions of the country face a different challenge in the wake of predicted weather extremes over the next few decades, necessitating the need to hunt for alternatives. 

With record temperatures and a fast-growing population, little attention has been paid to indigenous, climate-resistant 'super-food' such as the humble Pearl Millet (bajra) that can help augment the nutritional needs in these areas and help combat inflation.

Pearl Millet and Sorghum (jowar) have existed in this region for centuries. What this provides in terms of advantages is a plant that has naturally adapted to the region's ecology and climate and, more importantly, has ingrained itself into the local cuisine. 

Few would not recognise the bajra ki roti (flatbread made of pearl millet flour) jowar ki roti (flatbread made of sorghum flour). 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared 2023 as the International Year of Millet (IYM 2023). The purpose of dedicating an entire year to this crop was to highlight its potential to address global food security amidst growing populations and foreseeing increased demand for high-nutritional foods.

In Pakistan, where over a third of the population grapples with food insecurity, the southeastern regions are projected to become unsuitable for producing wheat, a critical dietary staple, due to the anticipated temperature extremes.

Researchers argue that Pakistan has yet to implement effective strategies to grow climate-resistant crops like Millet as an alternative staple. Market analysts predict that agrarian Pakistan, facing cash deficits, could turn to Millet and even become a net importer by the end of this decade.

Millets and food security

According to the FAO, Millet exhibit resilience to harsh climates, offering a solution to food scarcity in the face of a growing global population. Millet are nutrient-rich whole grains packed with antioxidants, minerals, protein, and a diverse range of fibres catering to specific dietary needs. They are also gluten-free.

Another key quality they have is demonstrating resistance to drought and tolerance to crop diseases and pests.

The FAO explains that declaring 2023 as the year of the Millet was to align with the United Nations' 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development. In this regard, they point to SDG 2 -- zero hunger; SDG 3 -- good health and well-being; SDG 8 -- decent work and economic growth; SDG 12 -- responsible consumption and production; SDG 13 -- climate action; and SDG 15 -- life on land.

The only problem is that Millet account for less than three percent of the global grain trade. Greater cultivation of Millet and its inclusion in the global trade can mean a diversified global food system which can better absorb global food shocks such as the ones experienced in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine and others caused by climate change impacts in Pakistan countries where floods and other climate change induced events can impact crops and agricultural land.

Another area where Millet can help contribute is to meet the world's rapidly increasing food needs. A recent study by Meticulous Research highlights that the world's population is projected to swell to 9.8 billion by 2050 (Pakistan is projected to reach 400 million). This surge is expected to drive up demand for high-nutritional food products such as the Millet and staples such as wheat, rice and others.

Millet and Pakistan

Millet and sorghum are Kharif crops (planted in April through June and are usually harvested from October to December). According to data from the International Production Assessment Division (IPAD), Pakistan produces around 350 metric tonnes annually. Compared to the annual global production of 31,710 metric tonnes, this accounted for a measly one percent.

It produces an additional 100 metric tonnes of sorghum annually. 

As per IPAD, of Pakistan’s total millet production, Punjab accounts for 91%, Sindh has a 7% share, while the remaining two percent is grown in different parts of the country.

Neighbouring India, however, is the world leader in millet production. India produces around 13,200 metric tonnes annually, accounting for 42% of the global total.

Millet in India is being championed by its Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With Bajra considered a favourite of Modi, he has taken it upon himself to tell that to the world by infusing it with some style borrowed from Bollywood: a song about millets which was this weekend nominated for a Grammy.

Millet production challenges in Pakistan

Studies indicate Pakistan has lagged in implementing the necessary strategies to boost millet production.

Data published by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) and included in the annual Economic Surveys published by the federal finance ministry show that the production of both crops has decreased in recent years. It seems to be falling out of favour with the mass public along with barley, which is being sown over smaller and smaller areas each successive year. Millet has seen the area over which it is being sown halved within a few years.

Yet, a study published in the Wiley Hindawi journal highlights Millet as the fifth most significant crop in Pakistan, trailing behind maize, rice, wheat and gram in terms of the area over which it is sown and quantities produced.

While edible, Millet has of late been relegated as fodder, poultry feed and for livestock.

One factor highlighted by the study was that the existing variety of Millet being sown and grown in Pakistan offered a limited yield of around 1,000 kilogrammes per hectare (Kg/Ha).

This can be attributed to various factors, including unstandardised cultivation practices, improper seed-sowing timing, unpredictable weather patterns, competition from other cereals, irrigation challenges and accessibility to higher-yield seeds.

Ali Ahmad Rahimoon, who farms Millet in the Thar desert, says the high-yield seeds cost substantially more than traditional seeds, which prevents most farmers from using them. Add to this fact that it is not as readily available as traditional seeds, with most farmers unaware about the benefits of this type of seed, which also affects the ability of farmers to use higher quality seeds.

"Traditional seed is available for Rs100 per kilogramme, whereas high-yield seeds cost Rs700 per kilogramme," he told The Friday Times, adding that the high cost can be prohibitive for most farmers.

But if a farmer can afford the steep difference in price, the expensive seed provides a significantly higher yield, Rahimoon says.

"This is where the government should step in to provide high-yield seeds at lower rates," the farmer from the Chachro area in the Thar desert suggested. 

Munir Panhwar, who grows Millet using newer hybrid seeds in the western Sindh district of Dadu, says his yield has nearly tripled compared to other varieties which he has used in the past.

"Past varieties used to produce around seven maund per acre (around 645.33 Kg/Ha) as compared to new ones whose production can touch 20 to 25 maunds per acre (around 1,843.82 Kg/Ha)," Panhwar explained. 

He echoed Rahimoon in suggesting the government start an awareness programme for millet growers and motivate them to plant it.

"Millet yields in Sindh average seven maunds per acre. But with new hybrid varieties and proper use of fertilisers, yields can be increased to as much as 40 maunds per acre (around 3,687.63 Kg/Ha). There is a need for awareness and education among growers," suggested Abdul Sattar Khushk, Principal Maize and Millet Research Institute in Dadu, told The Friday Times.

Millet - A climate-resilient solution to Pakistan's impending wheat shortfall

A 2020 study featured in the Asia-Pacific Network (APN) Journal predicts that due to escalating temperatures over the mid-century, the southeastern regions of Pakistan may no longer be suitable for wheat cultivation.

The APN research further underscores a stark increase of 1,000 Growing Degree Days (GDDs) between historical data and mid-century extreme scenarios for wheat. This suggests an urgent need for intervention to address the impending heat stress in cereal crops, thereby safeguarding food security. 

Pakistan heavily relies on wheat as the main source of caloric energy for the vast majority of its population, having consumed almost 26 million tonnes of wheat annually. 

It should not come as a surprise for a country, large swathes of which were once considered to be the bread baskets for the world, that wheat is an essential part of the diet. It contributes a substantial 72% of caloric content in their average diet. 

Thus, with wheat projected to face increasing challenges for production in districts such as Thatta, Badin, Umerkot, Hyderabad, and Sanghar in Sindh, finding climate-adaptive and dietary-acceptable alternatives becomes imperative.

By contrast, the pearl millet exhibits potential for growth in arid and drought-prone regions with low rainfall. In Sindh, it is predominantly cultivated in the rain-fed areas facing a water shortage for irrigation purposes, such as the Thar Desert and Kachho Desert.

In the face of climate change, a study published in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture underscores pearl millet as a resilient, climate-smart grain crop suited for regions susceptible to drought and heat stress.

Dr Attaullah Khan, Director of the Arid Zone Research Center in Umerkot, Sindh  - an arm of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), highlighted how Thar could provide an ideal location for large-scale millet cultivation.

"Thar desert has the potential to cultivate Millet on 100,000 acres (about 40,485.83 hectares) as a third of the desert has sweet groundwater which has less than 2,500 Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). So, it is high time to utilise the conditions foreseeing the future demand of Millet and food security,” he suggested.

However, he said that despite its resilience, Millet is sensitive to changing climate patterns.

"This year production of Millet was 35% less than the average in the Thar desert due to the cloudy season which prevailed for a month and a half, although it rained sufficiently during the harvest period," Dr Khan told The Friday Times.

Dr Khan suggested focusing on virgin areas to enhance millet production.

Beyond encouraging the crop, the government must also focus on a dietary shift amongst the public, which tempers wheat consumption with millet flour. 

The author is a Karachi-based journalist who focuses on the environment. He tweets @zulfiqarkunbhar