This post was written by Marie-Benoit Magrini, Economist at INRA.

Grown on less than 2% of arable land in France, pulse crops are not a common sight on French farms. Yet, pulse crops provide important benefits for agriculture and the environment. First, pulse crops can help in the fight against global warming by taking nitrogen from the air rather than from fertilizers, reducing emission of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Indeed fertilizers, which enable high yields of major cereal crops such as wheat, barley or maize, are responsible for half of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, by diversifying simplified farming systems (specialized around cereal crops), addition of pulse crops allows producers to use fewer agri-chemicals and reduce environmental impact. Moreover, pulses have many functional and nutritional properties both as feed for animals and food for people. 

Despite these significant benefits, pulse production in France continues to fall. So, what is the problem? Of course, there are several problems, but I will address three of major ways that pulse benefits are under-appreciated.

We know from a recent survey that, at farm level, most French farmers do not consider the ‘real’ economic margin that pulse crops provide.* The annual gross margin for pulses is on the order of 2 to 6 times less than that for major crops. But this ‘opportunity cost’ of including pulses in crop rotations is reduced when the inter-annual net margin is factored in, since with pulses in the rotation farmers can save nitrogen fertilizers and see higher yields and higher quality in subsequent crops (e.g. more protein in wheat).

Few farms have access to technical advising that would help them to properly evaluate multi-year net profits that can accrue from adding pulses to cropping systems. As a result, the economic gain associated with pulse crops often goes unseen. Even when residual benefits to subsequent crops are accounted for, it may not appear sufficient to motivate farmers to grow pulse crops. This is particularly true when wheat prices are high and fertilizer prices are low. For organic producers, the difference of yields and prices between cereals and pulses can be less important. Yet, for most farmers, larger value addition is needed before taking on pulse cropping. This may arise from better evaluation of environmental benefits and also from new markets for pulses. 

Under-appreciation of pulse crops results, in part, from what economists call “environmental externalities.” That is, the environmental benefits of growing pulse crops (for instance the reduction of GHG emissions) are not transmitted into market prices and this is a major challenge for attributing the correct economic value of these environmental services. Domestic carbon markets could help in assigning values to environmental benefits as the French InVivo cooperatives have done since 2011. Environmental services payments for farmers applying good agricultural practices could also be a useful lever.

The weak appeal of pulse crops for French farmers compared to cereals is also due to a competitiveness differential between cereals and pulses that has its roots in an historical European preference after the Second World War II: pulses were considered almost exclusively as animal feed, placing them in direct competition with soybean meal imported from America, which provides cheap protein in large quantities. This orientation, driven by public institutions, has meant that research and private stakeholders have neglected to promote pulses in higher value markets for human consumption. 

So, the challenge is to create new markets for pulse crops and this may be aided by the transition towards a new nutritional equilibrium between vegetable and animal proteins. However, pulses have traditionally been called ‘the poor person’s meat.’ According to a survey of consumption in France, pulses are seen as ‘old-fashioned’ and changing lifestyles that favor fast-cooking foods have made them less attractive. Therefore, consumer demand for pulses may require food innovations that make pulse consumption easier. For instance, INRA (the French national research institute on agriculture and food) has recently obtained a European patent on pasta made with pulse flour .

So, what can we learn from the story of pulses? Pulse crops have been marginalized by the ‘lock-in’ created by two major factors over the last seven decades: the trend in cropping systems toward homogenization and intensive use of agrochemical inputs paired with public policies and market dynamics that heavily promoted cereals. The push to gain the environmental benefits from diversification of crop systems and the agri-food sector faces competition from the higher economic returns farmers perceive for major crops. To bring them back into center stage, renewed appreciation for pulses is needed both at the upstream and the downstream side of food supply chains. 

To go further, see 
Magrini, M.-B., Anton, M., Cholez, C., Duc, G., Hellou, G., Jeuffroy, M.-H., Meynard, J. M., Pelzer, E., Voisin, A.-S., Walrand, S., 2016, « Why are grain-legumes rarely present in cropping systems despite their environmental and nutritional benefits? Analyzing lock-in in the French agrifood system.”, Ecological Economics, in press, DOI 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2016.03.024.

*A survey conducted with the French National Research Program LEGITIMES (LEGume Insertion in Territories to Induce Main Ecosystem Services) ANR-13-AGRO-0004,