Why Beans Truly Are the Magical Fruit: International Year of Pulses

August 16, 2016

Photo by Johannes Odé

Pulses can significantly improve global nutrition, help eradicate hunger and mitigate chronic conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. However, this category of nutrient-dense superfoods, including chickpeas, lentils, dry peas and bean varieties, is often overlooked in our diets.

The FAO defines food security as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” With over 800 million people globally suffering from acute or chronic undernourishment and a rapid increase in health issues linked to poor diets, the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses in order to demonstrate the critical role these foods have in global food security and nutrition.

Pulses can contribute to food security in a plethora of ways. Pulses are suitable for marginal environments, like those of many of our African partner countries, because they are a drought-resistant, deep rooting species which can supply groundwater to companion crops when planted in intercropping systems and require little to no irrigation themselves.

Pulses also enhance crop diversity, decreasing the risk farmers face from environmental and market fluctuations.Therefore, people living in dry environments, where food security represents a major challenge, can enhance their production systems in a sustainable way using locally adapted pulses. For example, iron-biofortified beans, which have an even higher nutritional level than commonly grown bean varieties, can provide up to 45% of a person’s daily iron needs in West Africa, where anemia has a strong presence. A study in West Africa showed that farmers who use cowpea fodder could benefit from an extra 50 kg of meat per year and over 300 kg of cereal grain from the improved soil quality.

Additionally, pulses are an affordable source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and iron. As an excellent source of folate, pulses can significantly improve maternal and child health by reducing the risk for neural tube birth defects and heightening brain function and development.

In developing countries, where the trend in dietary choices tends to go towards more animal based protein and cereals, retaining pulses is an important way to ensure diets remain balanced and to avoid the increase in non-communicable disease often associated with diet transitions and rising incomes. Complimenting animal feed with improved varieties of pulses has shown to significantly improve animal nutrition too, yielding better livestock, which in turn supports food security. Furthermore, the protein obtained from pulses is significantly less expensive compared to animal foods, at $0.10 per serving compared to $1.49 for beef.

Smallholder farmers can cultivate pulses as cash crops and/or food. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) conducted a study in Ethiopia which estimates that productivity gains from improvements in planting techniques could double overall pulse production to two million tons over a period of five years. This gain in productivity would increase smallholder income by 40 to 70 percent per hectare. This could contribute to incomes and improved food security by meeting demand for pulses locally.

Across our program countries, Senegal has the highest rate of households growing pulses at 70.43%, but only 3.04% sells the pulses they grow. This indicates that households in Senegal tend to produce more pulses for themselves rather than for sale, representing a huge untapped potential for smallholder farmers to lift themselves out of rural poverty, as pulses can yield two to three times higher prices than cereals and their processing provides additional economic opportunities, especially for women. Additionally, Benin has the highest total number of households –905– growing pulses, and the highest rate of households selling pulses, at 26.78%.

Finally, pulses have a low food wastage footprint, as they can be stored for long periods without losing their nutritional value, minimising loss. Pulses also have a lower carbon footprint than almost any other food group, are water efficient (using just one-tenth of the water of other proteins) and enrich the soil where they grow, by pulling nitrogen from the air and into the soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers that contribute to greenhouse gases.

Since the world’s growing population is set to require a 70% increase in agricultural production by 2050, pulses’ low carbon footprint and water and soil efficiency make them the ideal sustainable food for meeting future food needs, especially in developing countries. With their sustainable, affordable and nutrient-dense production and consumption process, pulses may be just the solution our planet needs in order to eradicate hunger once and for all. Here at The Hunger Project, we are empowering partners across the globe, every day, to implement agricultural best practices and nutritional education in their communities, now with an even stronger emphasis on the significance of pulses to an array of developmental sectors.


Learn More:

The International Year of Pulses Official Website

Secretary-General’s message for launch of the International Year of Pulses 2016

Communities in Mozambique Face Food Shortages as a Result of Drought