When scientists Amrita Hazra and Patricia Bubner arrived in Berkeley, California a few years back to do post-doctoral science at the University of California, they bonded over what they saw as an alarming lack of diversity in the American diet.
For one, Hazra, from India, and Bubner, from Austria, had both grown up eating many more diverse grains than they could find in the States. And they both had a fondness for millet; Hazra likes to add it to soups, to give texture, while Bubner makes patties with it, or cooks it in milk like porridge and adds apples and honey. But, Hazra was disappointed to learn that the variety of millets consumed in India are not available here, and they found that most Americans hardly ate it at all.
While millet is grown and consumed in vast quantities in places like Africa, India, and parts of Europe, the ancient grain is much less popular here. In fact, it is mostly marketed for bird seed rather than for human consumption.
Millet is the term for a group of small seeded grasses. If you’ve ever cooked Proso millet, the variety available here, you know that it is yellow in color, and looks like a small bead when raw. Cooked in water or broth, it becomes fluffy in texture, with a slightly nutty taste. As with many grains though, it doesn’t have much flavor at all, and is mostly used as a vehicle to soak up whatever sauce you serve it with.
Earlier this year, Hazra and Bubner joined forces with Gavin Abreu, a student at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who had launched several food businesses in his native Mexico City, to create what they call The Millet Project. The project is geared toward, “rediscovering the traditions of cultivating millets and further reintroducing them into our diet.” The group applied for and was given seed funding from the Berkeley Food Institute, which awards grants with the aim of diversifying the local food system. A third researcher, Pedro Gonçalves, who was interested in the grain’s sustainable properties, later joined the team.
They received $24,000 to fund one year of research, and are looking for funding sources to continue the working. While they have no plans to start an organization or non-profit, and it isn’t tied into any kind of degree program, Bubner said, “we do this because we are genuinely interested in it and want to contribute to a change in the current food system.”
Why are these researchers so excited about millet? For starters, it’s a nutritional powerhouse. While its levels of antioxidants, iron, protein, calcium, and B vitamins vary from variety to variety, like quinoa, it has higher levels of protein and micronutrients than corn or rice. It’s also gluten-free. But the team doesn’t want millet to be marketed specifically as a gluten-free food, because, as Hazra puts it, “everyone should eat it.”
Furthermore, she said, “Millets have a balanced nutritional profile,” meaning they have fewer carbohydrates and more protein and fiber than common grains like rice, wheat, and corn.
For a grain with a nutritional profile similar to that of quinoa, millet also wins out in the budgetary department. According to Hazra, “Millet is the cheapest grain the bulk section” of her local supermarket; while organic quinoa sells there for $5.99 a pound, a pound of organic millet costs only $1.29. This is because as quinoa has grown in popularity, the price of it has increased, too. While it thrives in the harsh conditions of its native Bolivia and Peru, it must be adapted to grow elsewhere (something American scientists are working on).
Lastly, millet is incredibly resilient in a variety of climates. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research describes it as a crop that can be grown in the “hungry season,” meaning that it often flourishes at times when the previous year’s grain supplies are exhausted.
“It’s one of the only crops that will grow in very bad soil with very little water,” said Bubner, “which is why it’s grown so widely in Africa.” It also grows faster than other crops—an average of 110 days from seed to grain, said Bubner, noting that wheat takes a minimum of 140 days, and rice up to 150 days.
This drought-tolerant quality might be part of what has caught the eye of the Berkeley Food Institute, and others in California, where farmers are enduring an historic multi-year drought.
While there are 50 to 60 varieties of millet in existence, procuring seeds to grow them all would be nearly impossible, so the team is growing the four most widely available varieties at the school’s Gill Tract Community Farm, an urban farm that is open to the community and gives researchers a place to experiment.
In addition to Proso, the researchers are growing Japanese Barnyard millet, “a beautiful variety that has thick husks but might be difficult to hull,” said Hazra; Pearl millet, the variety most commonly grown in India; and Foxtail millet, also called German millet. (Teff, the grain used to make the Ethiopian flatbread injera, is also a form of millet.)
The Millet Project is also working with six California farmers—some of whom are already food activists in their own right, like Doug Mosel of the Mendocino Grain Project and Mai Nguyen of Ca Phao Farm—north of the Bay Area. Many of the farmers are excited to be growing millet for the first time, with seed provided through the grant. “We can see how it fares in different regions and soils in Northern California, so we can learn what conditions it likes best,” said Bubner.
All the researchers have also gotten a crash course in farming, as they are tending to their own crops at the Gill Tract Farm, and have travelled to the other farms to help out. And even Bubner’s mother was drafted to join in, since she visited her daughter during planting time. “I told her she had it coming, since she’s the one who first introduced me to millet,” said Bubner.
On top of cultivating these unsung varieties, The Millet Project also recently held an exhibit extolling the virtues of the grain. They invited visitors to try foods like bread, crackers, and sausage made with millet, and gluten-free beer brewed from the grain. The hope is to pique the interest of eaters looking to expand their diets and eat more whole grains, and to help increase consumer demand, which could result in more millet grown and consumed in the U.S. in the not-too-distant future.
Speaking like the millet evangelist she is, Bubner recalled a recent visit to an agricultural area of Northern California where it was hot, dry, and all she saw was rice fields and almond trees, two crops known to rely heavily on irrigation. “I thought ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’ That could be millet,” she said.