By Dr. Diego Rubiales, Professor, Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, CSIC, Spain

Combining disciplines to boost productivity and resilience

Pulses are a cornerstone of food and nutritional security. With rapid increases in global food needs on the horizon, the role of chickpeas, lentils, beans, and other pulses will become even more significant. Future projections suggest a 23% increase in consumption of these high-protein, high-fiber legumes globally by 2030. Securing pulse production to satisfy these needs requires multidisciplinary research that combines well-targeted breeding and agronomy with socio-economic dimensions and market knowledge. 

Advances in breeding and agronomy can increase productivity and resilience of pulse cropping systems, with co-benefits for greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation. Re-integration of pulses into the currently cereal-based cropping systems can increase the diversity of on-farm biota, of household food, of livestock feed, and of income sources while improving ecosystem services. Important research frontiers include effective pairing of improved pulse cultivars with optimal management practices and better quantification of ecosystem services. Coordinated research among pulse and cereal crop researchers can focus on development of production practices and technologies for holistic management of cropping systems. Such collaborations can also develop models for efficient seed delivery systems and integrated production and manufacturing of cereal- and pulse-based foods. 

Recognizing a complex context

The biophysical, socio-economic, and policy context for increasing pulse production and consumption is complex and interconnected. Pulses will need to become more financially competitive if they are to become more prominent in farming systems. Increased pulse production can improve the nutrition and well-being of all social groups and have counterpart food system shifts that increase value addition to pulse crops. More focused research is needed to clarify the importance of pulse consumption in reducing malnutrition and obesity and to inform national dietary guidelines. 

Policy and market structures commonly impose a preference for cereals in cropping systems. Cereal producers are the major beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies in many countries (although European policy toward diversification of agricultural production is leading to a recent change in the trend). The environmental benefits of adding pulses to cropping systems – such as net reduction in greenhouse gas emission and improved agrobiodiversity – are not sufficiently valorized by markets. Food labeling rules and dietary guidelines that categorize pulses as either high-protein or high-starch limit the ability of food manufacturers to make full use of pulse fractions.

To overcome this policy and market ‘lock in,’ multi-disciplinary research on transition paths can investigate the potential of new value-added market outlets and innovative, high-yield cropping systems with high yield and reduced environmental impacts.  

Engaging users of research findings

When applying a multi-disciplinary, multi-crop, ‘farming systems’ perspective, participatory engagement with farmers is an important component of pulse research. It helps to understand what is happening in production systems and to learn about innovative practices, for example, though farmer networks working with different pulse types. 

This participatory approach also makes sense for pulse research beyond the production zone such as developing methods for full commercial viability of pulse fractions. User-engaged research can bring pulse scientists together with producers, food industry, medical scientists, development agencies, policy makers with a focus on real world knowledge needs. Social scientists can assist with design of participatory research especially in overcoming gender barriers.

Tackling challenges

Research organized toward ‘challenge-based topics’ (as in the EU’s Horizon 2020 program) represents a viable approach to mobilizing multi-disciplinary research and development. This can include multi-sector  public-private-research partnerships. Such approaches can be relevant for meeting region-specific pulse crop research needs as well as cross-regional challenges. Cross-regional modes can also be used to adapt existing knowledge (such as genome sequencing tools) to other crops and regions.

Regional and global multi-disciplinary networks can be powerful accelerators for pulse crop research. Consortia can tackle complex sustainability issues within and across production, processing, and consumption components of pulse supply chains. The Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) and the International Mungbean Network demonstrate the power of this approach.

Multi-disciplinary research programs should be focused on clearly delineated research needs and questions (rather than simply linking up sets of research tools) informed by assessment of past and present pulse research investments. There are several success stories including integration of improved chickpea in the Pacific Northwest, pigeonpea (and bean) in maize systems in Tanzania, cowpea with sorghum and millet in West Africa, lentil in rice systems in Bangladesh and Nepal, and mungbean in rice-wheat systems in India. There are also pending opportunities such as integrating pulses in rice-fallows in India and Bangladesh.

Building scientific capacity

A greater number of experienced scientists are needed, especially in regional research and development programs, to work on many dimensions of pulse production and consumption. Interactions among geneticists, pathologists, breeders, agronomists, environmental scientists, and social scientists are essential to developing new pulse cropping systems that reduce pesticide use, better manage diseases and pests, optimize fertilizer use, and build agrobiodiversity. There are too few socio-economic scientists working on pulses and more are needed if we are to understand drivers of demand for pulses. In some countries, agricultural research institutes seeking cross-disciplinary partnerships may not have robust social science and economic counterparts.

Pulses have played an essential role in the development of agriculture since its origin and remain essential to any future scenario of sustainable global agriculture. With more research attention, pulses can make major contributions to food and nutrition security, agricultural sustainability, and reduced climate change risks. This can only be achieved with a coherent international research community with strong cooperation and partnerships across academic, government, and private sector research systems.  

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 that would allow pulse crops to deliver on their full potential as a critical player in the global food system.