Seldom do we find a crop that serves the need of people across countries and cultures. Pulses are one such variety with a strong history of nourishing people around the world for centuries. Along with the early cereal grains, pulses were among the first crops cultivated as far back as 11,000 years ago. While global pulse production has grown rapidly in the past three decades, in the past ten years alone, the world has produced between 50 to 60 million tonnes of pulses annually. As of 2015, the world’s biggest producers of pulses were India, Canada, Myanmar, China, Nigeria, Brazil, Australia, the USA, Russia, and Tanzania, while Argentina, France, Ethiopia, and Turkey came up as the world’s most important pulse exporters.
Meeting income security
Food production, food security, and climate change are linked intrinsically and cannot be looked at separately for a comprehensive view. India made a giant leap in pulses production as it has reached the higher average production to the tune of 24 million tonnes during last couple of years from around 30 million hectares of land, with a productivity of 800 kg/ha. With a focus in achieving 32 million tonnes, the projected pulses requirements of India by the year 2030 and 39 million tonnes by 2050, India is poised to realise an annual growth rate of 2.2 percent.
A dedicated focus on pulses production can also help in furthering the aim to double the income of Indian farmers by 2022, mainly by the increased consumption of pulses across the world and the rising adoption of non-meat dietary habits such as veganism. This indicates at the better prospect of exporting surplus pulses should the overall production increases. It also offers the farmers a wider diversity of crops that can boost their income. Pulse-based cropping systems that include pulses in crop rotations that partly transfers nitrogen to subsequent crops – it has been proven that intercropping has a higher potential of soil carbon sequestration than monocropping systems.
Mitigating climate change
The challenge of unpredictable climate has posed a threat to food production globally and poses a threat of undernutrition in the poorer countries. As a tropical country, India is more vulnerable to this changing pattern driven by irregular and untimely rainfall, as well as extended summer or winters. Growing pulses can provide a solution – they are food with a low carbon footprint as they use half the energy inputs of other crops. Pulses utilise soil bacteria to draw nitrogen from the air which replaces the need to add nitrogen enhancing agents to the soil. When soil is fertilised with nitrogen in the form of manure, fertiliser, or crop residue, soil micro-organisms convert some of this nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and represents around 46 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from global agriculture. Nitrogen-fixing pulse crops have a lower carbon footprint compared to other crops. Pulses like peas and lentils extract water from a shallower depth, thereby preventing use of water at the deeper levels and increasing water use efficiency of the entire crop rotation. Pulses, therefore, provide opportunities for microbial life to flourish, breaks disease, weed and insect cycles, and increase microbial diversity, helping crops to access nutrients.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 85 million hectares of pulses have globally contributed to fixating 3-6 million tonnes of nitrogen in soil.
Let the discussion conclude with an anecdote from history – legend has it that when Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan, he asked his father to choose just one food item for the rest of his life. The greying Shah Jahan opted for the versatile chana or chickpea. The humble bean can be pounded into flour or besan, cooked as a daal or curry and even transformed into kebabs while the leaves could substitute saag preparations. We can learn from history to be wise.
(Views expressed in the article are author’s own)