'Pulses contribute to diversified diet and are a potential source of income'

As we celebrate the declaration of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, FAO's William Murray discussses their nutritional benefits

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Monday 14 December 2015

Pulse crops are important components of production systems that are resilient to climate change
Credit:Saul Palma/FAO

Why are pulses important food crops for a large number of people across the world?

Pulses are among the most extensively-used foods in the world. They provide protein and fibre, and are a great source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium. Pulses should be eaten as part of a healthy diet

Pulses contribute to food security in a number of ways. First, they represent an important source of food. Second, they can be a source of income for the farmer, simply by selling some of what has been produced.

The possibility of further processing or value addition may be another source of revenue while also generating employment opportunities.

Finally, the crop residues left after harvest may be used to feed livestock, further contributing to a diversified diet and potential source of income.

According to the FAO DG, the nutritional value of pulses is not generally recognised and frequently underestimated. Why is it so? Also, why are pulses not popular all over the world?

The International Year of Pulses has been launched to raise awareness (about) the important contribution that pulses can make to a healthy diet.

In some instances, varieties have fallen out of favour because they are labour intensive to prepare for consumption when compared (to) other food sources such as maize or rice.

The higher prices offered for horticulture crops or for crops such a maize and rice have also contributed to farmers not growing pulses.

Pulses are, in fact, grown in most parts of the world. However, they represent a large group of crops that are being underutilised when their potential contribution to a healthy and nutritious diet and to the development of resilient production systems are taken into consideration.

How can pulses play an important role in addressing environmental challenges?

Pulse crops are important components of production systems that are resilient to climate change. Pulses are able to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds in the soil. This process is known as nitrogen fixation.

Some (types) of pulses are also able to free soil-bound phosphorous. Both nitrogen and phosphorus are essential nutrients for growing plants. The ability to produce them naturally drastically reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while at the same time improving yields.

The less fertilizers and pesticides applied, the lower the risk of environmental contamination and unintended effects on the environment.

Including pulses in intercropping farming systems and cultivating them as cover crops not only reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, but also helps reduce soil erosion, (thus contributing) to the creation of healthy soils.

Healthy soils, are in turn, better able to retain moisture and facilitate the uptake of nutrients by plants.

The reduced need for synthetic fertilizers indirectly reduces the level of greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere.

Fertilizers are energy intensive and a significant source of emissions. At the same time, pulses also promote higher rates of accumulation of soil carbon than cereals or grasses.

What is the aim behind declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses?

The proposal was first discussed at the 146th session of the FAO Council in April 2013 and taken up by the UN General Assembly in November that year.

There are perhaps two main reasons for declaring 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. First is the recognition of the important role that pulses can play in sustainable crop production systems, in particular through their contribution to improved soil fertility and to agro-biodiversity.

Second, they are an excellent source of protein as well as (contain) a wide range of vitamins and minerals. They are recognised as an important component of a balanced and healthy diet as evidenced by their use by the World Food Programme and other food aid initiatives.

Are pulses a substitute for meat and dairy products as far as protein source is concerned?

Certainly pulses are an excellent source of plant-based protein. However, particularly in the case of dairy products there are other advantages to their consumption than just their protein content. Pulses should be seen as an important contribution to a healthy diet.

What role do pulses play in supporting biodiversity?

Including pulses in intercropping farming systems and cultivating them as cover crops creates a more diverse environment at the field level.

This, in turn, supports a broader range of insects and “wildlife” above ground and in the range of bacteria and fungi in the soil.

The presence of this broader range of insects and microbial life provides for a more resilient “ecosystem” that helps keep harmful insects, diseases and pathogens in check, thus reducing the need (to) use pesticides. 

The crop residues can be fed to livestock.  The availability of forage from a range of different crops provides a better diet for livestock.

How good are pulses in adapting to climate change?

There are hundreds of different varieties of pulses and only a limited number of these are widely grown.

It is from this diversity that climate-resilient varieties (which are adaptive) to changes in temperature and have the ability to grown in poor soils or under drought conditions can be derived.

There is a need to study these underutilised varieties to better understand their potential contribution to developing cropping systems that are adapted to climate change.

Scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are currently working on the development of pulses which should be able to grow at temperatures above the crop’s normal “comfort zone”. Since climate experts suggested that heat stress will be the biggest threat to bean production in the coming decades, these improved pulse varieties will be of critical importance, especially for low-input agricultural production systems.

Promoting pulses is a good thing. However, is there a downside to the story? Is there any fear that farmers will devote more lands and time to pulses than wheat and rice as the former is more economically viable?

Actually no—the view is that farmers will start integrating pulses into their production of basic cereals through rotations, intercropping or as cover crops.

This will reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while still contributing to an increase in yields. The farmer will also be making more productive use of his land by having two different crops either to feed his family, or sell along with improved fodder or forage for his livestock.

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