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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
February 2017: Meet Professor Martin Jones


Meet Professor Martin Jones

When Martin Jones first visited Inner Mongolia eleven years ago to meet peasant farmers growing millet, he had the impression he was observing a disappearing way of life. But insights from his archaeological research have resulted in a surprising economic turnaround for the region. Growing millet as a high-quality organic crop has become big business for Aohan, and its government has now awarded Jones a medal in recognition of his work ‘as an outstanding individual who studies, preserves and develops millet agriculture in Aohan and promotes the economic wellbeing of the Aohan people’.


Q: What is millet and why are you so interested in it?

A: Millet is a generic word used for small-grained cereals. There are around 60 species around the world and their grains are much smaller than the supersized wheat, rice and maize that we’re most familiar with. I’m interested in the extreme diversity of what humans have thought of as food through history, and how they’ve produced that food and shared it. What we can see from the present day is that over half of what the human race consumes in calorific terms is just three species of grain - wheat, rice and maize. What we can see from the archaeological and anthropological record is that the number of species that were recognised, named and routinely ingested is more like 10,000.

Q: How did this interest take you to Inner Mongolia?

A: We went to places where people had found evidence for millet in the Neolithic. I was drawn to China because I found two key millets - broomcorn and foxtail millet - in the prehistoric crop record in Europe that were botanically East Asian, and I wanted to work out what they were doing in Europe. Just as we were planning the trip there was news of new sites in Aohan, Inner Mongolia, so we changed the itinerary and went there.

Q: What did you find?

A: We discovered that at the same time Asian millets were coming into Europe, wheat and barley from Europe was going into Asia – so it wasn’t a transition from gathering to agriculture, but a move from single-season, single-crop agriculture to multi-season, multi-crop agriculture. By using crops from other regions the farmers could get another growing season and extend their yields; millets were important in the emergence of multi-cropping. The kind of solutions found by farmers in the past weren’t driven by market factors, they had to be ecological. Multi-cropping allowed towns and civilizations to develop.

Q: Why is this important for global food security today?

A: I think the impact will come by applying what we’ve learned to Africa. Over the past few hundred years Africa’s indigenous millets have been replaced by American maize, which is high yielding and now a major staple. But a number of the famines in Africa were entangled with failure of the maize crop. The millets have a resilience that the large grained cereals like maize don’t, and they could be added to what’s currently grown. A more diverse suite of crops can offer farmers more resilience than a monoculture, which yields high in the good times and collapses completely in the bad times.

Q: Has anything happened that’s really changed your perspective?

A: When we first visited Aohan it could sometimes be hard to tell whether the millet was growing as a crop or as a weed. We asked the locals, and rather than tell us it was a stupid question they politely answered a different one. They told us what it tasted like and when they last ate it. These people had lived through hard times, famines, so in order to survive they had developed more open ideas. That was a clear indication that I’d come from Cambridge University with concepts that seemed universal but just weren’t relevant to the lives of people in contemporary Northern China.

Q: Do you think millet will become more popular in the UK?

A: We’re working with NIAB and Unilever who are interested in it as a crop. Our staple foods are surprisingly conservative - I don’t know how fast they’ll change. UK producers are interested in millet for health food bars though, and I think we’ll see a continuing trend of diversification of north European food in this way. Health foods are much more flexible in terms of innovation than burger buns!

Q: What was your medal for?

A: We raised the profile of millet and showed it has a global presence and an important role in future agricultural developments. Since we first visited Aohan it has been recognized by the FAO as a ‘Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems’ site, which has allowed the farmers to turn this disappearing crop around. Its millet is now badged as a quality product and they sell masses of it. The government singled out ten of us who were working on this project for recognition.

Q: What are the most important things you’ve learned through your work?

A: Up until 10-15 years ago, we needed to invest in gathering knowledge on the really major crops. Now, if we want to, we can parallel that for the other 10,000 minor ones. Millets have taught me that it’s worth shifting the focus. I’m also struck by the things that happen in people’s choices about food. Either they’re incredibly conservative, or they change quite quickly. In the case of millets in Aohan, everything changed within just a decade.

Q: How do you feel about receiving the medal?

A: The nice thing is that this medal is from the Aohan Government. They’re farmers and local people whose life is quite separate from academic research. I’m touched that they showed their respect for academic research in this way, and they found such a useful connection to it. What I’m always reminded as an academic talking to peasant farmers is that their knowledge about plants is enormous.


Professor Martin Jones is Head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, where his research has been supported by grants from the European Research Council, NERC, the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.