Millets – ancient crops with a bright future

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This blog post is written by Katarina Börling, research adviser at SLU Global, in conjunction to the International Year of Millets 2023.

Sowing millets in the village of Samadey in 1995 ­– a collaborative process. One person created a pocket (hole), while another carefully placed 10-15 seeds into each pocket. After a few weeks, a thinning process took place, and only the three healthiest plants were retained. Photo: Katarina Börling

My first encounter with millets was in the 1990s, spending numerous hot hours in a pearl millets field in the village Samadey outside Niamey in Niger. This was part of a Minor Field Study linked to the PhD thesis of Johan Rockström, where he annually brought two SLU students. The fieldwork gave a good opportunity to follow the cultivation of millets on a farmer’s field. The daily routine also included a morning stop on our way out of Niamey, to buy “maza” – small millets pancakes, from a woman cooking them on a roadside wood stove, which served as our field lunch.

Purchase of lunch – millets pancakes – before leaving Niamey for a day of fieldwork. Photo: Katarina Börling

As one of the earliest domesticated crops with a history dating back 7 000 years, millets have been a staple crop in many parts of the world. However, in the past half-century, millets have been replaced in many regions, in favor of higher-yielding crops such as maize, rice and wheat. Yet, there is a rising interest in millets as they are resilient crops with low input requirements and an ability to cope with increasing effects of climate change, such as drought and flooding. In addition, the interest is driven by the health benefits and nutritional value of millets, providing gluten free grains rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.

Here I’m measuring soil water content in the millet field during the sowing period, protecting the instrument from the hot sun with a shirt. Photo: Kristina Gullbrandsson

SLU symposium dedicated to millets

In India, the spotlight on millets was set a few of years ago, when declaring 2018 as the National Year of Millets. Building on this, the Government of India also proposed to the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2023 the International Year of Millets (IYM 2023). Throughout the year, information has been gathered and several events have been organised to inspire stakeholders from policymakers to farmers, civil society and researchers, promoting a reassessment of the crucial role that millets play both in diets and in production.

In contribution to IYM 2023, we at SLU Global together with SLU Plant Protection Network and SLU Breeding Network, organised a symposium dedicated to millets in September 2023 in Alnarp.The event brought together SLU researchers and MSc students, as well as several international participants. Keynote speaker was Patrick Okori, the Executive Secretary of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), who gave an inspiring talk where he framed the role of different millet crops in a changing climate and how it can be used for diverse purposes, including as a healthy food alternative. However, he pointed out the need for further research and development on millets.

At the symposium, we discovered that the typical millet yield in Africa is as low as one ton per hectare. However, it was underscored that there is an unleashed yield potential of millets, which can be unlocked through improved breeding materials, optimized agricultural practices and improved seed systems. Concerning health benefits, several positive effects of millets consumption was raised, and we also learned that millets can be used for making nutritious porridge for undernourished children.

I was also very inspired by invited speaker Alexandra Klang from Svalorna (LINK) who talked about the Millets sisters in India. A group of Dalit women who are leading a change of norms in India by supporting small scale millets farmers, pushing politicians to introduce millets in schools, working with seed banks and improving market for millets. By sharing knowledge nationwide, they have elevated the millet cultivation, promoting indigenous knowledge and through that, provided food sovereignty.

Several of the speakers addressed the concern of vanishing cooking traditions, highlighting that millets pose a challenge in terms of preparation due to their unique demands in the kitchen. Also, some new millets varieties give a high yield, but doesn’t taste well, which emphasizes the delicate balance needed between cultivation benefits and gastronomic appeal in millets breeding. However, for us, the day at the millet symposium was nicely framed as we were served tasty millets-cookies for “fika” and a nice millet lunch, which made the day a holistic experience.

Johan Rockström and my fellow SLU student, Kristina Gullbrandsson, taking a break in the shadow during the fieldwork. The millet plants are growing bigger every week. Photo: Katarina Börling

Looking at the bright future for millets

During the week when I wrote this blog post, my excitement for millets reached new heights as I tuned into a news programme on national Swedish TV. Among the often discouraging news reports, a ray of positivity emerged when I witnessed the Indian farmer, Pradeep, passionately talking about his own experience of millets, and how millets can address the issue of food security. “More people’s hunger can be satisfied if more people eat millets, there is no doubt about it”. The journalist behind the feature, Malin Mendel, is a well-known Swedish international correspondent that has a taste for Indian cuisine and has written several cookbooks on the subject. When Malin tasted the millet pancakes that the farmer and his wife had cooked, she said with satisfaction “It tastes healthy!”, maybe implying that millets will become the new fashionable, healthy food making a comeback in the urban areas of India.

With increasing impacts of climate change that calls for resilient crops, coupled with an increasing demand for nutritious and healthy foods, I feel hopeful that the IYM 2023 will increase the interest in millets and that millets are ready for comeback.

The people in Samadey passing through the millets field at the end of the season before harvest of the millets. Photo: Katarina Börling

Find out more about SLU’s research and activities on millets and other traditional crops on SLU Global’s web here.

SLU has an important role to play in the implementation of Agenda 2030, in Sweden and beyond.

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This blog post was written by Jens Olsson, researcher at the Department of aquatic resources,Vice Dean responsible for environmental monitoring and assessment at the NJ-Faculty; and coordinator for SLU Water Forum.

Photo: Jens Olsson

The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) is an annually recurring meeting that serves as UN’s platform for sustainability and focus on reviewing the progress and achievements of Agenda 2030. This years’ forum took place in early July, and was the first since the pandemic to be held on site in the United Nations headquarters in New York. The theme for the meeting was recovery from the pandemic while also advancing the implementation of Agenda 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SGD’s) in focus for the meeting were SDG 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 14 (Life Below Water), 15 (Life on Land) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

As SLU has extensive and decisive knowledge for the implementation of at least SDG 14 and 15, we were invited by the Government Offices of Sweden to be part of the Swedish delegation for HLPF. In my role as Vice Dean responsible for environmental monitoring and assessment at the NJ-Faculty and coordinator for SLU Water Forum, I participated as SLU’s representative in the delegation.

The reports shared at the meeting on the progress towards global sustainability was anything but positive. Despite that we are approaching the half-time summit of Agenda 2030, it is apparent that goal fulfilment is moving too slow, and in many cases in the opposite direction to what is desired. This is mainly the result of the Corona pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also due to a lack of political will and societal commitment. The Ministerial declaration following HLPF was also one of the weakest so far, with substantial backlash with regards to gender equality and rights of vulnerable groups.

In spite of this negative development, during HLPF it was clearly stated that we now must go from words to action and accelerate the implementation of the extensive societal transformation needed to reach the ambitious goals of Agenda 2030. This also to hamper the impact of the concurrent and multiple global crises including climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. What was also obvious at the meeting is that the perspectives of young and vulnerable people are essential for this transformation to happen, as is making use of local knowledge from, among others, indigenous people. It was concluded that economic growth needs to be decoupled from negative impacts on biodiversity, and that we are at a stage in time where knowledge for reaching the goals is available. Now, perhaps more than ever before, political will and societal commitment are essential to move from words to action.

Photo: Jens Olsson

For me this was a true personal experience, and despite the reports of slow progress and backlash towards reaching the goals of the Agenda in 2030, it was fascinating to see and meet that many countries and committed people in one place at one time. In spite of all the bad news, the spirit of hope was present, and I witnessed that the majority of participating countries shared their ambitions for a more sustainable future. It was also instructive to be part of a large and inclusive delegation with participation from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds including representatives from governmental agencies (for example The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management), the civil societies, youth organisations and municipalities, and also politicians.

I think that for the implementation of Agenda 2030 in Sweden and beyond, SLU has a key role to play. However, we need to raise awareness of the Agenda in our organisation and accelerate our positive impact and contribution to social and environmental sustainability. Even more, I believe that we as a university can make a greater contribution with knowledge, data, advice, innovation and education to support the achievement of the ambitious goals of the Agenda.

Flowering plants for the fight against malaria

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Each year, more than 200 million people suffer from malaria around the world and every two minutes, a child dies from the disease. Globally, an estimated 3.4 billion people in 92 countries are at risk of being infected with malaria and developing disease. In conjunction to World Malaria Day, marked each year on 25 April, SLU Global highlights the importance of research by asking Professor Rickard Ignell about his ongoing and novel research to fight malaria.

Professor Rickard Ignell photographing one of the plants that are included in the study of potential sources of nectar at the Ifakara Institute, Tanzania. Photo: Sharon Hill

Please tell us about yourself, Rickard.

I am professor in chemical ecology, and have been working on disease vectors, predominantly on mosquitoes that transmit malaria, dengue and other arboviruses, since 2005. My group has a keen interest in understanding the ecology and evolution of olfactory (editor’s note: the sense of smell) communication in disease vectors, and we use a cross-disciplinary approach to assess how behaviours of these insects are shaped by various factors. Our fundamental research has been a spring board for us to identify novel tools that can be used to complement current integrated vector management methods. In relation to e.g., malaria control, we have expanded our work in sub-Saharan Africa over that last few years in order to increase the impact of our results.

You have recently received a large grant from The Swedish Research Council for research about utilisation of flowering plants for the fight against malaria. That sounds very interesting! What is it about?

Malaria mosquitoes, along with most other species of mosquitoes, require sugar and other nutrients for survival and reproduction, and obtain these through e.g., floral nectar. Mosquitoes prefer to feed on different flowers, and locate these using their sense of smell. Ongoing research has shown that we can harness the properties of attractive plants for the development of odour-bait technology to be used against both males and females of a wide range of mosquito species. We have also shown that toxic metabolites in floral nectar can have damaging effects on the development and survival of malaria parasites. Using a forensic approach, we will now expand our understanding of which plants are fed upon by malaria mosquitoes in the wild to assess if mosquitoes carrying malaria parasites change their floral preference in a way to self-medicate.

Why is this research important and what do you hope to achieve?

Malaria prevention and control strategies have resulted in a remarkable reduction of malaria mortality and morbidity throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades. However, over the last five years this impact has stalled, and we are now witnessing an increase in malaria in part of sub-Saharan Africa. Factors contributing to this include both physiological and behavioural resistance among the malaria mosquitoes, which has led to a need to control mosquitoes outside for which there currently are limited tools available. We have in a recent study shown that we can drastically reduce malaria incidence through mass trapping of mosquitoes by using an attractant that targets a broader spectrum of female mosquitoes. The floral attractant, which we now have available, increases this spectrum to include males, and we thereby have a better way of controlling the entire population of mosquitoes at a local scale. While the work we will do on toxic metabolites is still at an early stage, we hope that this research in the long run could provide leads for the development of drugs for the treatment of malaria.

How does this research differ from other research on combating malaria?

Until now the only viable option for controlling malaria has been to target the mosquito vector, partly due to the rapid development of resistance of the malaria parasites. The novelty of our research is that we embrace the natural ecology of the malaria mosquitoes in our efforts to identify novel tools for their control.

Anything you would like to add?

We are grateful for the support from various funding sources, including e.g. the Swedish Research Council (VR), which continues to support us over the years. This long-term funding has allowed us to generate a much-needed understanding of the ecology of malaria mosquitoes, which we now can use and share with our collaborators. There is, however, a need to increase our efforts, which we hope to achieve through increased collaboration both within SLU and other partners, but within academia and industry.

Thank you Rickard and good luck with your research!

Written by Malin Planting, communication officer, SLU Global.

Tanzanian-Swedish collaboration at the World Urban Forum 2020

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By: Edson Sanga, Happiness Mlula, Lazaro Mngumi, Maglan Sang’enoi and Said Nuhu.
PhD candidates at SLU enrolled in the Capacity Building Research Training Partnership with Ardhi University in Tanzania.

On 8-14 February, the tenth session of the World Urban Forum (WUF 10) was held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). This year SLU arranged two side events presenting research results in the field of sustainable urban development, and participated with an exhibition stand at the Urban Expo. A group of five SLU PhD candidates, enrolled within the Capacity Building Research Training Partnership with Ardhi University in Tanzania, participated in the forum together with their supervisor Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development.

From left: Maglan Sang’enoi, Said Nuhu, Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Lazaro Mngumi, Happiness Mlula and Edson Sanga; Photo: Anna Villaplana Casaponsa

The overriding theme of the WUF10 was Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovations. As part of the global pathways for realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UN-Habitat convene this forum for sharing information, best practices, discussing emerging issues and possible options. SLU participated in the forum, by sharing research grounded innovative ideas relating to rural and urban development. SLU participated under the sub-theme Sparking Research into Global Transformation which has a niche on theorising and practicing planning and decision analysis in different national and international contexts.

PhD candidates respond to questions related to their projects during one of the side events. Photo: Anna Villaplana Casaponsa

Side events

The SLU team convened two side events where we presented our research results; Side event 38: Urban-rural nexus: challenges and innovations to govern land, municipal and ecosystem services, on the fringes of resources constrained cities and small town and Side event 36: Beyond informality: informal settlements as contemporaneous urban heritage. The aim was to discuss new and innovative solutions of the dynamic shifts of activities that contribute to the well-being of rural as well as urban survival, particularly in the transforming areas of rural Africa. Topics that came up during the discussions were for example food security matters in relation to rural and urban interactions; informality, land governance and climate change in developing countries context.; and how to take research results and recommendations into practice.

The Urban Expo

The Urban Expo promoted innovative and sustainable solutions to the challenges facing cities and communities, including perspectives from national governments, the private sector, international organisations and academia. SLU’s exhibition stand highlighted how to strengthen social cohesion, exchange cross-disciplinary perspectives and link arts to sustainable development. Our booth received many visitors from both the academia and practice (both national and international organisations) with varying interests related to SLU’s global agenda. Academic matters offered by SLU, in particularly degree programmes, respective teaching language(s), preliminary conditions for enrolment as well as how to get scholarships, were some of the general issues that visitors wanted to know about. More specifically visitors asked about the role of SLU in conducting agriculture in hot climates like desert areas; food security related matters and SLU’s research agenda towards this topic; SLU research collaboration with UAE countries; and opportunities for collaboration with universities from some institutions in low-income countries.

Hon. William Lukuvi, the Minister of Land, Housing and Human Settlements Development of Tanzania visited SLU’s exhibition stand. From left: Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Happiness Mlula, Hon. William Lukuvi, Said Nuhu. Photo: Anna Villaplana Casaponsa

Hon. William Lukuvi, the Minister of Land, Housing and Human Settlements Development of the United Republic of Tanzania, visited our stand, and got information about our five PhD projects conducted in Tanzania with the collaboration of between SLU and Ardhi University. The minister in his remarks emphasised that it is important to put the research into practices, and in this case this can be achieved through cooperation with the Local Government Authorities (LGAs) in Tanzania. 

Outcomes and take-home messages

By taking part in this conference we have established networks with people from various agencies, universities and organisations from across the globe. As the forum congregated people from all over the world with different exposure and ways of doing things, we have got experience from preparation of world class exhibition materials, art of presentation as well as confidence.

We think that participation in such international forum is imperative for the university’s internationalisation as it exposes the work done at the university and thereby attract new collaboration pathways. Networking and advertising SLU in matter related to land governance, climate change and rural-urban linkage can be done in this kind of forum.  

Background information

The World Urban Forum is organised and convened by UN-Habitat and addresses one of the most pressing issues facing the world today: rapid urbanisation and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies. SLU’s participation was supported by SLU Global and led by Zeinab Tag-Eldeen, Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, and coordinator of the Research Platform Sparking Research into Global Transformation.

Capacity Building Research Training Partnership with Ardhi University in Tanzania
Within this programme, funded by Sida 2015-2020, several research projects are carried out in collaboration between the Urban and Rural Development Department at SLU, and Ardhi University.

Chefs spill the beans, but where are the farmers? Reflections from the EAT Forum 2019 in Stockholm

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By: Aniek Hebinck, Communicator and Researcher at SLU Global & Environmental Change Institute. Aniek holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Science from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and wrote her thesis on Shaping Sustainable Food Systems.

The EAT Forum carnival is back in town and it’s as ambitious as ever! This year’s edition is themed ‘The Science is Clear: It’s time to Act’.

During two days in June Stockholm becomes the temporary hive for many ‘foodies’ coming from business, policy, academia and civil society. The forum kicked off with messages bouncing from hopeful, thanks to the environmental movement created by the youth, to fearful of the current social and ecological challenges. Gunhild Stordalen, founder and executive chair of EAT, set the tone for the 2019 edition of the Forum by calling on all of us to be a bit more like Greta Thunberg.

‘Academic rock stars’ Jessica Fanzo and Johan Rockström emphasized that “the science is clear”. By this, they mainly refer to the EAT-Lancet report, which argues for a drastic protein shift to plant-based foods, particularly in high-income societies. After having set out the main points of the dense EAT-Lancet report, they urged governments and business to embrace science-based evidence and use it for setting the targets for sustainable diets.  

Fanzo and Rockström also highlighted some of the aspects that this report has not covered. These include translation of what the ‘planetary health diet’ means for a national setting or the analysis of trade-offs between the potential winners and losers of the transition. It’s here where EAT invites the forum’ attendees to fill in those gaps, invoking higher participation from the civil society, contrary to earlier years.

One group that is keen to contribute to solving this puzzle are the chefs. The ‘planetary health diet’ may have been scrutinized by academics for its overgeneralization and the lack of adaptation to national contexts, but the chefs happily tackle this challenge. Lorna Maseko, a celebrity chef from South Africa, and a Nigerian chef Michael Elegbede emphasized that it is crucial to increase the diversity of what we eat and what we grow for the intake of micronutrients and biodiversity in general, but also to learn from other cultures through their food. 

Photo: Aniek Hebinck

This message echoes through as a collective of chefs, united behind the ‘Chefs Manifesto’, enters the Kitchen Stage. Doing what they do best – cooking. The audience eagerly munched on the ‘turtle bean’ dish that the Kenyan Instagram celebrity Chef Ali Mandhry was handing out. Meanwhile, Chef Chantelle Nicholson from New Zealand stressed that chefs could inspire both professional and home cooks to prepare meals based on the ‘planetary health diet’. Indeed, this merry bunch has clearly demonstrated how Lancet’ scientific targets can be translated into recipes for sustainable, healthy and tasty daily home cooking.

While their importance is frequently mentioned, a group that hasn’t been very visible at the forum, are farmers. Early on in the day, Wiebe Draijer (Rabobank) urged to make farmers the heroes of change. After all, they are crucial in making a transition to a ‘planetary health diet’. However, this has proven to be easier said than done.

The last panel of the first day titled ‘Transforming Agriculture: restoring hope”, represented by international institutions and large businesses, made an attempt to capture the voice of farmers as it was. Assan N’gombe (AGRA) underscored the crucial role of small-scale farmers, highlighting the challenges farmers face when adopting climate-smart agriculture and that there is a need to engage with farmers directly and to build trust. Mariana Vasconcelos (Agrosmart and farmer’s daughter) continued by stressing that being a farmer is not an easy job and requires, daily decision-making and risk management. Lastly, Eric Souberain (Danone) acknowledged that food has become a commodity and that farmers are not fairly rewarded for what they bring to the table. At the end of this session, very little was said about the implications of a shift to a ‘planetary health diet’ for the many small-scale farmers worldwide.

Day one of the forum highlighted many insights regarding technological innovations and uptake of science, but also underscored the continued challenge to establish an inclusive dialogue and action to foster food system change.

This blog post was originally published at SIANI.