By Dr. Christine Negra, Versant Vision LLC

Pushing toward the goal line

Victory will be a lot easier to achieve for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in a world where people grow and eat more chickpeas, lentils, beans, and other pulse crops. High-protein, low-fat, high-fiber pulse grains are heavy hitters for human health and nutrition and these plants are real team players when it comes to boosting soil fertility.

Pulse grains have been recognized for their ‘Most Valuable Player’ 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 combating obesity, and in building a diverse microbiome. With two to three times as much protein as many cereals, pulses are big winners for communities with protein-deficient diets. With thirteen different types of pulses available, farmers can pull from a deep bench when they add pulses to their cropping systems to reduce the impacts of pests, diseases, and weeds as well as weather extremes, while gaining a new source of income. This is starting to sound a lot like Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 3 that call for food security, sustainable agriculture, and better human health.

But pulses also bring a lot to the field for the match-up with climate change. By ‘fixing’ atmospheric nitrogen, they reduce fertilizer needs across the whole crop cycle and lower greenhouse gas footprints. Many pulse crops are adapted to arid growing conditions and can tolerate drought stress better than most other crops, an important skill in a changing climate. They are definitely on the roster for Sustainable Development Goal 13.

A team effort

The 10-Year Research Strategy for Pulse Crops blends the expertise of seventy-five experts from all over the world to shine a light on the game-changing potential of investments in pulse science. This major team effort demonstrates strong scientific support for multidisciplinary approaches to beating global challenges to the sustainability of our agricultural and food systems. Putting this plan into action will deliver knowledge systems that lower barriers to efficient, equitable pulse value chains by providing: 

  • Context-specific options for profitable, sustainable pulse production that will enable pulse producers to anticipate and respond to emerging risks and changing market expectations and to meet global needs for stable sourcing of high-quality pulse crops.
  • Strong scientific basis for including pulses in national policies and dietary and medical guidelines, which will allow pulses to be more financially competitive with other crops and better represented in food products and global diets.
  • Guidance for targeting public and private investment in pulse value chains, which can unlock financing for essential infrastructure and commercial ventures.   

Getting in the game

With pulse research recommendations directed at public and private sector stakeholders in government, industry, agriculture, health, funding agencies, and research institutions, no one should be left standing on the sidelines.

National governments can use research findings to target public investments and policies to promote pulse production and consumption as part of climate-smart economic development (e.g. for export as well as in-country pre-processing and value addition for local markets) and public health (e.g. dietary diversification to combat malnutrition). National programs and regional intergovernmental initiatives are critical to guiding and funding priority research and establishing or modernizing pulse supply chain infrastructure and information systems (e.g. spatial planning; rural advisory services; agricultural statistics).  

Industry groups, such as the Global Pulse Confederation, are essential research partners in developing pathways for value-added, pulse-based products by engaging local agri-enterprises, regional partners, and major food companies and promoting innovation and transparency in pulse value chains. Industry groups can serve as conduits for scientific knowledge to their members. Producer associations are pivotal to designing and conducting research that is responsive to real-world agricultural constraints (e.g. biotic and abiotic stresses; market dynamics) and possibilities (e.g. increased yield; efficient resource use). When these groups can co-invest with government, they are well-positioned to serve as effective knowledge hubs for their members.

Research institutions are the engines of knowledge and innovation that can serve as nodes for regional collaboration among public and private sector partners and lead development of appropriate pulse varieties, technologies, and practices that are resilience to climate and market conditions and reduce labor demand and risks. By quantifying the benefits of pulses for different social groups, researchers can support their integration into public and private initiatives targeting local and global sustainability challenges. 

The mandates of global donors and international agencies would benefit from greater integration of pulse crops into their programs. Agricultural development, humanitarian, and finance organizations in public and philanthropic sectors can use research findings to capitalize on the benefits of pulses for agricultural sustainability and human well-being. All stakeholders can work to ensure that pulses are included in major policies and sustainability finance mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund. 

Boosting production and consumption of pulses is essential if we are going to play within the planetary boundaries of our global agriculture and food systems. We need a game plan for investing in pulse crop research so that we make the necessary scientific gains toward agricultural sustainability and human well-being. Game on!

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.