India marked by grain milling excitement

by Morton I. Sosland
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In contemplating estimates of consumption of grains for food around the world, the temptation is great to try to relate these numbers to the structure and character of each nation’s milling industry. In the developed nations, food use is almost always the same as mill grind, with variations usually accounted for by breakfast cereals. That is why the dramatic differences from this relationship ruling in India are particularly important as well as instructive. After all, it was only a year ago that India’s food use of grains (meaning wheat and coarse grains) first exceeded China’s to bring it to global leadership in this measure. That the nation that now consumes more grain for food than any other has a commercial flour milling industry that is far from being the largest presents a conundrum that is well worth exploring.

Thanks to a revealing review of the state of wheat milling in India by David McKee that appeared in the April issue, it is possible to grasp how striking these differences are. According to this well-traveled industry analyst, the commercial milling sector in India grinds 15 to 18 million tonnes of wheat per year to make flour for bread and biscuits similar to what is turned out in most western nations. That is only a little more than half the total of grains ground into food by U.S. flour and corn mills, estimated at 31 to 32 million tonnes. The grind by India’s commercial mills, made up of more than a thousand companies, is hardly a fifth of the 100 million tonnes of wheat and coarse grains consumed for food in 2011-12. Its food use exceeds China’s 95.5 million by a small margin. It was only in 2010-11 that India first surpassed its Asian neighbor to become the world’s largest consumer of grains for food. India’s no-meat diet plays a huge role.

Watching rapid growth of grain production in India makes an observer wonder how the domestic food processing industry kept pace. What McKee points to is the expansion in western-style commercial milling, with new roller mills being installed across the country. This is matched by an equal, if not more amazing, expansion of commercial mills that produce stone-ground atta flour as well as chakkis, the small stone mills powered by either electric or diesel-powered engines. He estimates that 40 to 45 million tonnes of stone-ground atta flour are produced annually by the ubiquitous chakkis.

It’s difficult to imagine a wheat grinding system more different from that of most of the rest of the world than India’s. Most family homes maintain a supply of wheat from which the homemaker periodically withdraws 10 to 15 kilograms to take to a nearby chakki for grinding into atta for making chapatis and nan at home. Chapati is a flat unleavened bread baked on a griddle, and nan is a leavened flat bread. Whole grain, stone-ground atta is preferred, and the evolution of the Indian economy has resulted in commercial mills trying to replicate the chakki-made product, including branded, packaged products.

Bread in India apparently faces little of the competition in the diet that is evident in western nations. According to McKee, the market for regular commercial wheat flour expands at 7% to 8% annually, compared with population growth shy of 2%. This means the need to build 20 to 30 new milling plants each year, with plants grinding as much as 300 tonnes daily, which would be a smaller mill in Europe or the United States. That sort of growth would normally relate to a prosperous milling industry, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, mainly due to corruption in wheat distribution as well as highly disturbing government interference with the wheat market. It does not seem unrealistic to believe that such a dynamic and exciting market would eventually make for one of the world’s most successful milling industries.