By Dr. Shoba Sivasankar, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes


An urgent call to action

Pulses, or grain legumes, are central to the health of agricultural soils and to the health of humans. Recognition of these facts is as old as agriculture itself, which is why pulse and cereal crops developed in parallel throughout the early history of agriculture. The special ability of pulses to fix atmospheric nitrogen makes them indispensable components of cropping systems, and their high grain protein content makes them rich sources of vegetable protein. 

Despite these incredible attributes, the majority of research investments in plant agriculture is focused on a mere handful of cereal crops, with pulses lagging behind by more than ten-fold in terms of research support. The urgency of the call to action for stronger research investments in pulses intensifies with every agricultural season as near-term gains from cereal-dominated commercial agriculture overshadows the quiet erosion of natural resources and the luxury of diet diversity to mankind is gradually erased. The declaration of the year 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP) by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, directly after the International Year of Soils in 2015, is tribute to the undeniable association between soils and pulses, and thence to sustainable agriculture. 

A five-pronged strategy

A 10-Year Research Strategy for Pulse Crops, that is now published, was prepared through a global consultation of stakeholders as part of the multifaceted efforts of the International Year of Pulses. The strategy focuses on five key areas, namely, (1) Breeding and genetics for improved productivity and resilience, (2) Pulses in integrated cropping systems and agricultural landscapes, (3) Integration of pulses into food systems, (4) Integration across agricultural, nutritional and social sciences, and (5) Spatially-explicit analyses related to local and global challenges. Preparation of the strategy included four rounds of consultation, involving first interviews with 33 stakeholders in pulse research in September 2016, followed by a write-shop of 17 researchers in Nov 2016 at the International Legume Society meeting in Troia, Portugal, circulation of the draft to 175 pulse researchers and incorporation of feedback received, and finally a verification meeting at the IYP Global Dialogues in Nov 2016 at the FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy.

Central to the 10-year strategy for pulse research is the crucial need for coordinated interdisciplinary research that spans biological, agronomic, food, economic and social sciences, aiming for solid and lasting impact. The ultimate focus of the strategy is two-fold: one, increased production of pulses in the global agricultural landscape, and two, increased consumption of pulses. The former supports sustainability of agriculture through the beneficial inclusion of pulses in cropping systems, and leads to food and nutrition security. The latter opens up the potential of pulses as the richest source of vegetable protein, the production of which uses a mere fraction of global water resources than that going towards the production of animal protein. Dedicated efforts to build multi-disciplinary pulse research capacity are essential to address the complex, interconnected scientific disciplines and policy context for increasing pulse production and consumption. 

Targeting global and local scales

There is broad international agreement on strategic research priorities for pulse crops, that emphasize sustainability, transformative potential, and end-user needs. Consistent and significantly increased investment in pulse research should be targeted to both global, or cross-regional, and local, or regional, scales. At the global scale, research needs to fill gaps in existing genetic resources and increase coordination across organizations in the use of genetic resources, tools and technologies. At the local scale, emphasis will need to be on varietal adaptation, agronomic interventions, locally-preferred food chains, prevailing or emerging value chains with market potential, and other relevant location-specific needs.

Advancing pulse science

Increased production and consumption of pulse crops is essential if global agriculture and food systems are to stay within planetary boundaries. Despite significant potential to improve food security and agricultural sustainability, global pulse crop production has remained relatively stagnant in yield per hectare, hectares planted, and total volume produced. Unfortunately, the 13 pulse crops together receive just USD 175 million in research funding annually. 

The science of pulse agriculture is markedly underdeveloped compared to other staple crops, including cereals. While genome sequencing information is becoming rapidly available, pulse crops have lagged behind cereal crops in the practical application of molecular breeding techniques despite technological advances and reduced costs. The role of pulses in cropping systems is under-researched. Similarly, while early scientific advances regarding the effects of pulses in human diets suggest an important role in combating malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, this body of knowledge has not expanded at a rate necessary to catalyze change in dietary guidelines and clinical practice. 

The 10-Year Research Strategy on Pulses calls for a level of research investment that is in line with the scale of global challenges and opportunities faced by pulse crops. Recommendations are directed at public and private sector stakeholders in government, agriculture, health, the food industry, consumer groups, funding agencies, foundations, and research institutions. Pulses are the future of sustainable agriculture and nutrition security, and this future starts NOW.

As part of the 2016 International Year of Pulses, scientists from around the world have developed a 10-Year Research Strategy for Pulse Crops with support from the Global Pulse Confederation (GPC) and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). This report showcases transformative research investments, including breeding and genetics that would allow pulse crops to deliver on their full potential as a critical player in the global food system.