The potential for adoption of high-iron varieties of pearl millet in Maharashtra
Source: Flickr, ICRISAT

A recent paper in Food Security explores which factors determine farmers’ choice for growing the most popular and least popular cultivars of pearl millet in Maharashtra, India. The aim of the study is to better understand the potential scope for the adoption of high-iron pear millet cultivars; one cultivar has recently been released, though others are planned to be released soon. HarvestPlus, ICRISAT and other public and private partners are exploring the potential of high-iron pearl millet varieties as a means of alleviating iron deficiency in western India, where an estimated 66 percent of children suffer from anaemia. The first high iron pearl millet was developed by ICRISAT and officially released in 2014. Currently, an estimated 125,000 farming households are growing high-iron pearl millet in several areas of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Haryana and Andra Pradesh. Several other high-iron, pearl millet hybrids are currently being developed. Thus by looking at the factors that influence the choices of farmers to grow popular and less popular pearl millet the study aims to provide an understanding of what is more likely to support farmer adoption of high iron cultivars.

Pearl millet is one of the most important food staples of poorer populations in the drylands of India and is considered a “nutra-cereal” because it contains high levels of energy and protein, provides a more balanced amino acid profile than maize or sorghum, and contains relatively high densities of iron and zinc. Pearl millet hybrids also have low seed requirements and Indian smallholders do not tend to cite price as an impediment to their use. Pearl millet is also potentially advantageous for adaptation to climate change because it is well adapted to uncertain and low rainfall conditions, uses water relatively efficiently, and tolerates above-optimal temperatures and salinity.

Maharashthra was chosen as the study area for a number of reasons. Historically, it is the state that has placed most emphasis on ascribing policy importance to pearl millet and together with Gujarat, Maharashtra has had the highest adoption rates for high-yielding pearl millet seed. Currently, hybrids cover the majority of the area planted for pearl millet in Maharashthra. Furthermore the highly competitive hybrid seed industry in Maharashthra means that pearl millet seeds are relatively easily accessed and purchased by farmers.

This study is based on observational data collected from 2069 households across 9 districts and 199 villages in the State of Maharashthra during 2010.  Data was collected on household characteristics and millet growing patterns through personal interviews in a survey conducted by HarvestPlus.  This household data was further complemented by secondary data sources for crop prices and historical district-level product price data for key crops such as cotton, maize, and pearl millet which were obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India. Explanatory variables that the study measures to have an impact on pearl millet varieties are: variety traits, household characteristics, market characteristics, farm characteristics, seed source, and information source. The study conducts an econometric regression analysis and probit model that analysed the choice of cultivars/seeds and the factors that influenced the farmers’ choice for either major/popular or minor/less popular cultivars. In total the study encompasses 4 major hybrids and 47 minor cultivars, most of minor cultivars have been developed by the public sector whereas the major hybrids were developed by the private sector.   

The study finds that the factors that increase the likelihood that smallholder farmers in Maharashtra choose to grow pearl millet include a pattern of drier long-term rainfall, higher temperatures, a greater incidence of drought, and less extent of irrigated land. Pearl millet growers are generally more likely to have livestock but also have lower annual income. This suggests that improving pearl millet cultivars can target poorer farm families in more challenging farming environments.

The study finds that caste does not appear to play a role in the decision to grow pearl millet, though the data suggest that it does when choosing cultivars. Growing popular hybrids is more likely among the scheduled castes, which tend to include less privileged groups, and growing minor cultivars is less likely. The paper discusses potential explanations for this pattern namely that an ‘obvious’ choice for a farmer is to adopt an already popular hybrid. Another is that any popular new hybrid tends to be adopted by the less privileged socioeconomic farmers in Maharashtra. The paper highlights that this is an encouraging interpretation and possible as previous studies have highlighted that seed price is not a constraint to the adoption of hybrid seeds.

Among the various traits analysed the study finds that there is a negative relationship between the likelihood of a farmer growing a major hybrid and consuming it within the household. The paper highlights that this result is consistent with Birol et al. who found that the most commercially-oriented growers were uninterested in consumption traits, which includes taste, color, the texture of pearl millet when kept for a long period of time, appearance and aroma, because they sold most of their harvest. The findings from the study suggest that farmers who ascribe importance to consumption traits are more likely to grow minor cultivars of pearl millet. The study also finds that commercial seed source is positive in the decision to grow a major hybrid, but does not affect the choice of a minor cultivar, the study indicates that this may reflect that many of the minor cultivars are bred by the public sector.

In conclusion the paper discusses a number of recommendations for further research relevant for the distribution of high iron varieties.  As the study finds a negative relationship between the importance of consumption and the likelihood of growing a major hybrid, consumer acceptance studies should be implemented alongside studies of participatory variety selection to ensure that farmers select high-iron pearl millet varieties,  for their consumption processing and production characteristics. In developing high-iron varieties, one strategy for crop improvement programs would be to partner with seed companies that supply currently popular hybrids as it appears that all farmers (regardless of income levels) use commercial sources to buy pearl millet seeds.

The full paper can be accessed here.

By: Bas Paris

Photo credit:Flickr, ICRISAT