Report written by Andrew Jacobs - Global Pulse Confederation Oversight group.

The Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture hosted an international conference on the role of Pulses for Health, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture in Drylands - well attended by 340 delegates from 36 different countries.  There was a strong theme of knowledge sharing, as experts from academia, research and production came together in a spirit of open collaboration, sharing the aim of promoting best practices, which in turn addresses the needs of the "Hidden Hungry" and rural poor.  The event was co-sponsored by ICARDA, IFAD, CGIAR, FAO, OCP and INRA.

During the opening ceremony, Margret Thalwitz (Chair of Board of ICARDA) set the scene, describing pulses as "Climate Smart & Future Crops" which thrive in water-starved climates thanks to their natural resilience.  It was noted that pulses are the critical staple food for over 1bln people and are recognised as replacement for animal protein, yet Pulses remain a neglected 'Orphan Crop', under-utilised with rather meagre funding for research.  Whilst average pulse yields have increased 35% in the past 40 years, this is still inadequate as demand for pulses outstrips supply (in same period, cereal yields increased 300%).  Margret rallied her audience, stating "We need to turn the page on pulses, we need to demonstrate to the world the important role pulses can play, so pulses become a sought-after crop"

OCP Foundation called for adoption of improved, shared technologies whilst IFAD expressed, in partnership with ICARDA, their determination to improve low-yielding varieties for the benefit of small holder farmers. CGIAR focused on improvements in natural resource management and nutrition to meet Sustainable Development goals, calling pulses 'Smart Food'.

The Key Note address was given by Rattan Lal, distinguished Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University - delivered with enthusiasm and a tangible passion for pulses. Professor Lal took us on an intriguing journey from 8,000 BC through to his own future vision.  In reference to the increasing world population (from 7.3bln now to projected 9.7bln by 2050) he warned us "There are 2.4bln guests coming to dinner, invited by us; and we have to make sure we provide food for them".  This against a background of 10% of arable land lost to agriculture by 2030 due to urbanisation and a world where water is being over-drawn, causing increase in water scarcity from currently affecting 2.3bln people to estimated 3.5bln people by 2025. 

But Professor Lal was optimistic, insisting the world currently produces enough food to feed 10bln people.  What we have to do is "produce more from less" starting with taking personal responsibility for reducing waste (30%-50% of food produced doesn't get eaten). 

He urged the need for "sustainable intensification" so in future we produce more crops from less land, producing "more per drop of water" whilst limiting input of synthetic fertilizers.

This requires sustainable Soil Management, replacing what is removed by extractive farming so we avoid irreversible degradation and loss of soil resilience, which otherwise would result in 'extinct soils'.  

Professor Lal stated "Pulses in rotation can 'produce more from less', playing an important role in UN Sustainable Development goals". He shared some of his 'out of the box' futuristic solutions: 

  • paying pulse farmers for the 20-22mln MT of Biological Nitrogen Fixation in to the soil achieved by farmers every year, worth $50bln, and pay them for the societal value of their implementation of Carbon Sequestration 
  • a vision of future "plants that talk to us" through chemical messaging allowing farmers to intervene before plant is damaged ('I need water' or 'I'm being attacked by pests')

Professor Lal concluded with his 2050 vision: "Pulses can play a significant role in 'sustainable intensification' in a world of nutrition-sensitive and climate-resilient agriculture"

Professor Joshi from IFPRI drew attention to reduced per capita consumption of Pulses in India, declining from 10kg in 1961 to 6.5kg in 2011, hence the 'Hidden Hungry'. He also highlighted the need to address the "yield gap" where Canada produces 2.2nd/ha of pulses, global norm is 1.2mt/ha whilst developing world producing under 500kg/ha (Ethiopia and Myanmar however achieve better yields). If India were to successfully solve yield gap, their production would jump from 17mln to 26mln MT p.a.  He highlighted inequality in terms of trade: Developed world accounts for 65% of global exports whilst developing world accounts for 82% of imports.   Global pulse exports are dominated by just 5 countries who between them account for 75% of global exports: Canada, USA, Australia, Myanmar and China. Similarly global pulse imports are donated by a few big players: India, China, Egypt & Bangladesh. 

Another impressive Key Note address was given by ICARDA's Professor Sohl who focused on sustainable productivity intensification gains if RICE FALLOW is double or treble cropped. Indian Rice is grown July-Oct and fallow can be avoided if pulses are grown Nov-Feb and Sesame March-May.  This potentially brings 11mln ha in India into increased productivity, potentially increasing farmer revenues at current market prices by Rupee 30,000/ha ($450/ha), as well as pulse nitrogen fixation boosting yield of subsequent rice crop.  Bangladesh has 1.2mln ha of Rice Fallow where bio-fortified Lentils are being grown to counter anemia in children and reversing arsenic poisoning from contaminated ground waters. In Nepal, 'no till drill' techniques have been adopted, where 800,000 farmers are drilling seed directly into rice fallow stubble which gains time and increases the soil's bio-mass, benefiting follow-on cereal crops.  

Professor Sohl talks of Grasspea as a miracle crop, being tolerant to water logging as well as drought resistant.  Grasspea cultivation will be encouraged once breeders can multiply low neurotoxin Grasspea varieties, as farmers love Grasspea due limited inputs and hardy traits.    He ended his presentation urging the following actions 

  • teach benefits of pulse consumption to school children
  • seek celebrity endorsement to aide pulse profile 
  • encourage regional, national and global pulse promotion events 
  • prepare short promotional documentary video on pulses for distribution by social media.

News was shared that Indian authorities had on April 17th launched Commodity Exchanges in 20 regional markets to increase market transparency & help farmers with price discovery. They plan to increase this to 200 markets in 2017 and all 600 regional markets by 2021.  Chickpeas are one of the crops covered by the new exchanges.

Dil Thavarajah from Clemson University, USA promoted the role pulses can play meeting WHO global targets of 40% reduction in child stunting, 50% reduction in anemia & 30% reduction in low birth weight.  She commented on obesity becoming a major global health problem, stating  "What you eat in private, you will wear in public".  She urged 'breaking down the silos' between nutritionists, plant breeders and growers to make human health the clear goal in food systems, promoting practices that increase nutritional outputs in a sustainable way. "Choose foods that are ingredients, not full of ingredients".

Dil has been instrumental in iron bio-fortification of Lentil Dahls and promoting Saskatchewan high selenium Lentils. She urged participants to report nutrient bio-availability on cooked pulses, not on dry pulses. 

Michael Blummel of International Livestock Research Institute illustrated the cross-discipline collaborative nature of the event when he presented on the competitive advantage of pulse crop residues (pod and straw) in feed and fodder.  He urged partnership with plant breeders on "whole plant improvements" so breeders do not only focus on pod yield, but consider value of crop residue in livestock feeding.

Other key points raised include:

  • Professor Sadiq called for some of the huge expenditure on medical health to be diverted to pulse research in support of contention that eating 40gr cooked pulses daily has beneficial effect on diabetes, obesity, CVD, cancer and dementia
  • Inter-cropping of pulses is only a limited solution, being dependent on manual labour as there is inability to use mechanical harvesters.  
  • Conservation Agriculture utilising "no till drill" techniques offers opportunities to increase production sustainably, increasing soil's bio-mass.

This event was characterised by openness and willingness to share knowledge in the common pursuit of promoting pulses, the "Food of the Future".