By Tatiana LeGrand, Humanitas Global
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has announced 2016 an International Year of Pulses (another common term used is grain legumes). The term “pulse,” refers to the dry seed of a legume (the most common ones are dry beans and peas, chick-peas, and lentils). Pulses have been grown by farmers since 7000-8000 B.C. and can foster higher biodiversity of insects and animals. There is a large variety of pulses grown around the world. Through intercropping with other species, more diverse agricultural systems are created that serve as a habitat for many other species. Hence sustainable production and consumption of pulses can contribute to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) playing an important role in improving global food security.
The importance of pulses goes beyond food security. Being highly water efficient, grain legumes are ideal for dry climate conditions and for low-input agriculture. Additionally, many grain legumes can improve soil’s nutrient quality through symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Not only can this improve the fertility of the soil, but it can also reduce dependency on synthetic fertilizers, leading to a reduction in GHG emissions from fertilizer production. Thus, pulses play an important role in combating climate change effects and supporting sustainable agricultural production. Growing pulses for animal feed and a source of green manure supports sustainable livestock raising practices. Supporting all farmers to use pulses as cover crops, in rotations or for inter-cropping as a climate-smart agricultural technique should be a priority to support the SDG’s. Agriculture should be resilient to climate change. And pulses can help with that!
Pulses production can also support smallholder farmer livelihoods. In Malawi, many farmers already intercrop maize and grain legumes that lead to increased food security and income. The role of women in grain legumes production cannot be overestimated either. Women not only perform daily farming and household activities, but are also the main decision-makers in questions of everyday nutrition for the family. Pulse crops like pigeon pea and chickpea are great sources of income and nutrition for women, as they don’t require as much manual labor as other crops, freeing up time for other activities. Producing pulses can also help the food and nutrition security of the community. In Zambia, nearly half of the pulses found in school meals were produced by women farmers, demonstrating the impact of pulses in achieving multiple SDGs.
Pulses diversity and versatility also allows for versatility in the kitchen. They can be incorporated in a variety of dishes, including as a meat substitute and even in desserts. But also for non-vegetarian meals pulses can be a great addition to the diet! We develop taste preferences throughout life and trying new dishes or making new substitutions has potential for improving our appreciation of pulses. They are cheap compared to meat products and provide a significant source of protein, dietary fiber, carbohydrates and dietary minerals. Eating pulses can even keep gut microflora healthy. Finally, pulses have a low glycemic index and can reduce the risk of coronary disease, truly embodying the title of a “super food”.
So what can be done to raise awareness on the importance of grain legumes for nutrition, environmental benefits and food security? On the supply side, it should be about supporting farmers in growing pulses, particularly ensuring equal access of women to land, seeds, financial and other resources, and encouraging collaboration of different actors throughout the food chain to create value. On the consumption side, we should raise awareness on the nutrition of pulses, provide education and support for cooking with pulses, and advocate for the dietary choices that support a sustainable food system. Learning and sharing this knowledge is a perfect starting point in contributing to improving food security.