January 6, 2016: As the “International Year of Pulses” starts, people will hold “Pulse Feasts” to show their appreciation for the culinary diversity, nutritional benefits and the tastiness of pulses.

PulsesFrom the lentils in Egyptian soup and Indian dahl to Brazilian feijoada - there are many reasons to celebrate pulses.

Not only are they highly nutritious with high protein and mineral content, but some have served as staple foods for more than four millennia, helping to spur on civilization in places such as the Indus Valley. Others continue to serve as the main source of food for indigenous communities in places where other crops can’t thrive. 

But it is not just their past that is worth celebrating. It is equally important to acknowledge the enormous role pulses will play in our future – particularly our ability to produce enough food to feed the planet without destroying it.

By 2050, with a global population expected to exceed 9 billion, we will need to roughly double the supply of food. But the production of food already has the largest environmental impacts globally of any human activity, accounting for 70% of water used by people, close to 80% of deforestation worldwide, nearly a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 70% of all biodiversity loss.

We will have to produce more with less land, water and other inputs and quickly, to keep up with a growing population and increased demand. And, with climate change, we have to do this with increasingly variable weather conditions. This requires us to use all the tools at our disposal. Pulses represent some of the best options we have to ensure a sustainable future.

  1. Pulses are good for the soil, and the soil is the key to our future:

    FDR said that “a nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” This was not an exaggeration. Soil carbon -- or organic matter -- is key to maintaining farmland for future generations. Indeed, the single best measure of healthy soil is stable or increasing levels of organic matter. However, half of the world's top soil, where most soil carbon is found, has been lost in the past 150 years. Fortunately, in some instances growing pulses, including as part of a crop rotation, can benefit soil health.

    In fact, some leguminous crops are so effective at adding significant organic matter to the soil and increasing crop yields, that the process of growing them as cover crops is known as “green manuring.” That is because most pulses draw their own nitrogen from the air so they do not need the same application of nitrogen fertilizer as other crops. They also build nitrogen in the soil through their roots, which is available after they die. By fixing nitrogen in the soil, the nutrient most needed in crop production, pulses also help reduce the needs and footprint of subsequent crops.

  2. Pulses produce more food with less water

    Food production accounts for 70 percent of the water used by people today. What will this scenario look like in 30 years when nearly 3 billion people will be lifted out of poverty and demand for animal protein, one of the most water-intensive food commodities, increases in places such as China, India and Africa?

    Pulses seem to be of the solution to this problem. To begin with, some pulses are already suited for semi-arid conditions, currently growing in places such as the Canadian prairies. Pulses, like chick peas, have an extremely low water footprint and can actually tolerate drought much better than many other food crops. When compared to beef, which uses about 1800 gallons of water for every pound produced, pulses use, on average, about 43 gallons per pound.

  3. Most pulses have a short growing season

    Pulses can produce more nutrition (e.g. calories, proteins and nutrients) per area cultivated than other crops. They can also do it in a shorter time. A number of pulses can be harvested within two months and most others in 90 days or less. This gives pulses two distinct advantages. They can be produced further north and south of the Equator where the growing seasons are short, but now increasing somewhat with climate change. Even a 2-3 week extension of the growing season in the Canadian Great Plains has allowed producers to increase the crops they cultivate over the last decade from 5 to 22 crops.

    With climate change driving weather variability and severe events like droughts that make producing food more difficult, expensive and less predictable, pulses can help producers insulate themselves to some extent from the impacts of an uncertain future. This can only be good for consumers as well.

  4. Some “orphan” pulses hold the potential to feed communities around the globe

    In today’s food system we are heavily reliant on a shrinking number of food commodities - like wheat, rice, maize/corn and potatoes - for the majority of our caloric intake. The result is a highly homogenized global diet that is more vulnerable to crop failures and diseases. The increased consumption of many of these global crops over the past 50 years has usually come at the expense of local indigenous crops that have been grown for centuries, such as sorghum, that can now be considered underutilized, or “orphan” crops.

    This homogenization, and its ecological implications, are sometimes most acutely felt in Less Developed Countries that traditionally rely on “orphan” crops, including some pulses, where farmers are converting land to grow more demanding but less efficient cereals.

    The irony is that many of these “orphan crops,” particularly pulses, have the potential to play a larger role in addressing global food security and meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population without adding pressure on the ecosystem.

    Take the relatively unknown Bambara Groundnut, an underutilized pulse from West Africa. Not only is the Bambara extremely hardy and can grow under drought-like conditions with little demand on the soil, it is also highly nutritional and a major source of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Furthermore, it can also be used as an intercrop, improving yields of other crops, such as maize and cassava.  [J1] 

  5. Pulses can help reduce malnutrition and poverty

    One of the more shocking facts about our global food system is that half of the world's farmers, many of whom are smallholders, can't feed their own families. According to the FAO, “out of the 2.5 billion people in poor countries living directly from the food and agriculture sector, 1.5 billion people live in smallholder households.

    Fortunately, FAO research also revealed that smallholders can be highly productive, and that when sustainable agricultural practices were adopted, average crop yields increased by 79 percent. Thus, pulses have the potential to reduce malnutrition in poor households in developing countries as well as produce surplus for local markets.

    Because pulses’ enhance soil nutrition (e.g. by nitrogen fixation and as cover crops), they can reduce the production costs of farmers. With some types of pulses yielding up to 300% higher prices than cereals, they can also supplement the incomes of millions of smallholders around the globe. Finally, with urbanization on the rise, local pulses can provide cheaper and more recognizable sources of nutrition for recent urban migrants.

    There is a saying in the Middle East about the ubiquitous and highly nutritious “ful,” a fava bean stew eaten for centuries by the rich and poor alike at breakfast, lunch and dinner – “ful is life.” The saying stems from the legume’s significance as a locally available, affordable and healthy source of food.

    As we celebrate the International Year of Pulses, the saying takes on even more significance. Pulses are not just key to our existing food system, they can also lay the foundations for a better, more sustainable future for both people and the planet.

Jason Clay is WWF’s Senior Vice President, Markets and Food. He is also Executive Director of the Markets Institute at WWF, a thought leadership platform working with stakeholders to identify and address global food production issues and trends in the 21st century.