By Baher Kamal*
See the facts: it is estimated that globally, some 190 million hectares of pulses contribute to five to seven million tonnes of nitrogen in soils. As pulses can fix their own nitrogen in the soil, they need less fertilizer, both organic and synthetic and, in this way, they play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
And pulses are very popular-the global production of pulses increased from 64 million hectares in 1961 to almost 86 million in 2014.
These facts, which have been developed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), also tell that, additionally, when included in livestock feed, pulses’ high protein content contributes to increase the food conversion ratio while decreasing methane emissions from ruminants, thus at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
This good news reveals how far this UN specialised agency is concerned about the impact of climate change on food security.
Climate change has a huge impact on global food production and food security, it says. “Changing weather patterns can cause an increase in natural disasters like droughts, floods, hurricanes, which can impact every level of food production.”
Unless urgent and sustainable measures are established, climate change will continue to put pressure on agricultural ecosystems, particularly in regions and for populations that are particularly vulnerable, warns FAO while informing about the so called climate-smart varieties of pulses.
On this, it emphasises the fact that pulses have a broad genetic diversity from which improved varieties can be selected and bred. This diversity is a particularly important attribute because more climate-resilient strains can be developed for use in areas prone to floods, droughts and other extreme weather events.
Pulses and Agroforestry
Added to all the above, agroforestry systems that include pulses such as pigeon peas grown at the same time as other crops, do help sustain the food security of farmers, by helping them to diversify their sources of income, FAO reports.
And “agroforestry systems are more able to withstand climate extremes as pulses are hardier than most crops and help to nourish the soil. When using these systems, farmers see an increase in crop productivity that extends to subsequent crop yields.”
It is significant that the United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses and held in April this year in Marrakesh, Morocco, an International Conference on Pulses for Health, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture in Drylands that came out with the “Morocco Declaration on Pulses as Solutions toFood and Nutrition Security, Agricultural Sustainability and Climate ChangeAdaptation.”
The conference gathered world science experts to find a path forward for boosting pulses production in developing countries through measures in science, research for development investments, policy and markets.
The Morocco Declaration recommends to increase global pulses production by 20 per cent from the current level by 2030 through closing the yield gaps, expansion in new niches that include intensification of rice fallows with pulses, and short season windows in existing intensive cropping systems.
It recognises that pulses production has significantly lagged behind the rising demand in the developing world in spite of many benefits of pulses, which are a “win-win for people and the environment – healthier soils, low carbon and water footprints, and greater household nutritional security, while also generating extra income for farmers.”
But What Are Pulses?…
In case you do not have enough information, FAO has elaborated the following set of facts.
To start with, pulses are a type of leguminous crop that are harvested solely for the dry seed. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses.
But they do not include crops, which are harvested green (e.g. green peas, green beans)—these are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soybean and groundnuts) and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa).
You probably already eat more pulses than you realise! Popular pulses include all varieties of dried beans, such as kidney beans, lima beans, butter beans and broad beans. Chickpeas, cow peas, black-eyed peas and pigeon peas are also pulses, as are all varieties of lentils.
Staples dishes and cuisines from across the world feature pulses, from hummus in the Mediterranean (chick peas), to a traditional full English breakfast (baked navy beans) to Indian dal (peas or lentils).
… And Why Are They Important?
Pulses are essential crops for a number of reasons. They are packed with nutrients and have a high protein content, making them an ideal source of protein particularly in regions where meat and dairy are not physically or economically accessible.
Pulses are low in fat and rich in soluble fibre, which can lower cholesterol and help in the control of blood sugar. Because of these qualities they are recommended by health organisations for the management of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. Pulses have also been shown to help combat obesity.
For farmers, pulses are an important crop because they can be both sold and consumed by the farmers and their families. Having the option to eat and sell the pulses they grow helps farmers maintain household food security and creates economic stability.
Furthermore, the nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses improve soil fertility, which increases and extends the productivity of the farmland. By using pulses for inter cropping and cover crops, farmers can also promote farm biodiversity and soil biodiversity, while keeping harmful pests and diseases at bay.
Pulses can contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing dependence on the synthetic fertilisers used to introduce nitrogen artificially into the soil.
Greenhouse gases are released during the manufacturing and application of these fertilisers, and their overuse can be detrimental to the environment. However, pulses fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil naturally, and in some cases free soil-bound phosphorous, thus significantly decreasing the need for synthetic
Baher Kamal is also Senior Advisor to the Director General of international news agency IPS on Africa and the Middle East.
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