This post was featured on the Zero Hunger blog

On November 19, researchers, farmers, food manufacturers and policymakers met at the New York Academy of Sciences to talk about the benefits of pulses for public health and the global food system. Organized by the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, in partnership with Bush Brothers & Company, this scientific conference, Little Beans, Big Opportunities: Realizing the Potential of Pulses to Meet Today’s Global Health Challenges, showcased the societal and environmental advantages of growing and eating more beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas.

Supported with studies from around the world, speakers highlighted the global significance and potential impact of pulses for human nutrition and agricultural systems. Pulses were cited for their role in nourishing children at risk of stunting during the first 1000 days of life, in reducing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, in combatting obesity, and in building a diverse microbiome. High-protein, low-fat, high-fiber pulse grains are produced by legume plants that ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen, reducing the need for fertilizers. Many pulses thrive in water-limited conditions, expanding farmers’ options for dealing with more frequent droughts.

Speakers detailed the “big opportunities” for pulses including investing in further research on the health effects of eating pulses. Backed by a more solid scientific evidence base, pulses can take a more central position in national dietary guidelines and the emerging medical arena of ‘prescription food.’ Stronger scientific data can inform policies that better incentivize farmers to grow pulses.

Another big opportunity for pulses is to dramatically increase yield per hectare in developing countries to match the impressive gains made by countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia. About 70% of all pulse crops are grown in Asia and Africa, which are seeing the fastest growth in pulse production and where populations depend on them heavily for dietary protein. Since 1980, global demand for pulses has increased by more than 20 million tons annually and production has expanded by over 20 million hectares. Better yields – through improved seeds, mechanization and agro-processing – will be essential for meeting consumer demand and for keeping this important protein source accessible to low-income households.

With the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s official launch of the International Year of Pulses 2016 on November 10th, these issues are now front and center for the food industry, national governments, consumer and health organizations, farmers, researchers and international organizations. Conference speakers emphasized how pulses can help to achieve several of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed at this year’s United Nation’s General Assembly, particularly related to food security, nutrition and sustainable food systems. As policymakers assess the comparative advantages of different crops for a sustainable national food system, they will find that pulses have a big role to play in achieving agricultural and dietary diversity.