This article was written by Randy Duckworth, GPC Executive Director, for FAO's Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition.
How can we increase pulse consumption in communities where pulse crops do not play an important part in traditional cuisine/meals? My response is almost certainy influenced by my background in international agriculture marketing. I suggest the answer to the question differs depending on whether the community in question is part of a developed economy (Europe, Japan, USA, Australia), emerging economy (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico), or a lesser developed economy (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti, Myanmar).
Consumer behavior researchers argue that trying to directly change consumer behaviors and/or incorporate new traditions (pulse consumption) in developed economies is difficult and costly. Consumers in developed economies have relatively high incomes, a wide variety of food choices available and do not depend on pulses for sustenance. Having said that, consumers in developed economies have greater freedom to make new choices that meet their needs.
In order to meet the needs of consumers in developed economies we must first identify those needs by recognizing the realities and trends that affect their behavior. Consumer behaviors in developed economies are impacted by trends that may differ significantly from those of emerging or lesser developed economies.
Simpler, Healthier Foods Trend. Developed economy consumers are increasingly looking for foods that are both healthier, simpler and more convenient (Food Technology Magazine Food Trends 2016). These consumers are also pushing for “clean” labels and product formulations that contain safe, simple, natural ingredients. And they are looking for labels with foods that are consistent with their environmental and/or moral consciousness – foods that are environmentally sustainable and non-destructive. Of course, pulses meet these needs.
Flexitarians and Environmental Consumerism. Increasingly, in more developed economies of the world we are seeing the rise of part-time vegetarians (also known as “flexitarians”) and environmentally conscious consumers that are making informed choices to reduce their meat consumption because of health, sustainability and other concerns. The growing support and awareness of “Meatless Monday” is an example of this trend.
Hidden Vegetables. Developed world consumers are constantly being reminded by their governments and health professionals that they should eat more vegetables. But many consumers in developed countries frequently shy away from vegetables due to taste expectations or simply because of preference for less healthy options (with fat, salt and sugar) . One way to increase consumption of vegetables – including pulses - is as “hidden vegetables.” One example of this trend is the pasta aisle where we can now find dozens of new pastas that contain spinach, sun dried tomatoes, pulses, etc. Pulse derivatives such as pea protein and pulse flours are perfect means by which to increase consumption of pulses with non-traditional consumers as “hidden vegetables.”
Gluten Free. Gluten free food offerings have had phenomenal growth over the past several years. This has undoubtedly helped create more opportunities for pulse related products since pulses and pulse derivatives are gluten free and can be used in a variety of applications where wheat would normally be used such as snack foods, pastas, pastries, and breads.
On order to increase pulse consumption in emerging economies that do not have a tradition of pulse consumption we must first acknowledge the realities of emerging economies. Emerging economies typically have a growing middle class with increasing incomes and typical aspirational consumer behaviors. These aspirational behaviors are not always a positive when it comes to pulse consumption.
Aspirational Food Consumption. Research is clear that as emerging economies’ middle classes grow consumer behaviors - particularly in relation to food consumption - become less traditional and more aspirational with greater consumption of animal products, and vegetable oils. In fact, some experts argue that aspiration for a more western diet in emerging countries could have a more detrimental affect on global health and hunger than population growth. As Mexican incomes have grown pulse consumption has declined and Mexico now wears the dubious crown of most obese country on earth.
Trade Liberalization and Urbanization. An argument could also be made that urbanization, trade liberalization and changing trade policies are impacting traditional consumption patterns by expanding consumer choices. Freer, more open trade is changing eating habits by providing an unprecedented level of consumer choices. In other words, consumers that traditionally had a small set of food choices now have many more options. Foods that may have been only available seasonably may now be available year round. And fast food restaurants have grown at an alarming rate in urban areas (Taco Bell reportedly plans to open more than 100 new outlets in Brazil in 2017).
For consumers that have not traditionally consumed pulses the increased exposure to new product choices might be a great thing. But for consumers in countries that traditionally consumed pulses, such as Mexico, increased incomes and the availability of more choices is likely to have a negative impact on pulse consumption and consumer health – unless consumers are provided more options that are reflective of the changing consumer landscape.
Need for More Choices. Having a greater range of consumer choices can certainly be positive if the global pulse industry, food processors and distribution channels are prepared to meet consumers’ aspirational needs by providing more consumer choices. If consumer aspirations are to dine out more then the global pulse industry needs to work with quick serve restaurant (QSR) sector to make choices available that include pulses. If more women are part of the workplace in emerging economies such as is the case in Brazil, then the global pulse industry needs to work with food manufacturers to provide more convenient options that include pulses. If consumers have more money available for snacking then the global pulse industry needs to be work with snack food manufacturers to broaden their product line to include pulse based products.
Lesser Developed Countries
Pulses already play a key role in many lesser developed countries since they can be used both for self-consumption or as a cash crop. In countries with poor soils or arid climates there are a number of pulses that can be grown where cereal crops will not survive (e.g., pigeon peas, cowpeas, bambara beans). Pulse crops provide farmers with an option to sell when times are good or to consume their harvest when times are bad. In countries such as Ethiopia, Haiti, and Madagascar pulses serve as both a major nutritional source and additional income source for producers (pulses are high-value crops, usually getting 2-3 times higher prices than cereals).
One of the keys to increasing consumption in lesser developed countries is supporting programs dedicated to improving production and storage, trade enhancement and market linkages, and education (e.g., agricultural extension). The UN World Food Program, USAID and many NGOs have created programs that are focused on providing adequate nutrition to mothers and their young children during the first 1,000 days of life. These programs are designed to reduce the many health and long term development issues that are associated with chronic malnutrition during early childhood. Working to incorporate more pulses into these early childhood nutrition programs is one avenue for increasing long-term consumption of pulses in lesser developed countries. In addition, programs that support the education of females have proven particularly effective in terms of long-term economic gains and household food security.
Programs that help establish market linkages and stabilize incomes for domestic producers are very important because pulse consumption is highly income elastic in lesser developed countries. Unlike developed markets, the rate of consumption of pulses is highly dependent on prices. If the domestic price of pulses is too high then consumers may choose to consume more of a less expensive protein source or more grains (e.g., rice, corn) or often they may simply consume less food.
Per capita consumption of pulses in lesser developed countries (and the rest of the world) has dropped in both emerging and lesser developed countries. According to the FAO, this is not just a change in dietary patterns but is the result of a failure of domestic production to keep pace with population growth. In order to increase per capita pulse consumption in lesser developed countries we must encourage increased research and development (R&D) in pulse sector since, despite relatively high rates of return, investment in agriculture generally and pulse sector specifically is often neglected in lesser developed countries. And to the extent that R&D exists it is dominated by the public sector. While public sector investment should be encouraged and enhanced we must also support and encourage more private sector investment in lesser developed countries. Any additional investment will almost certainly pay off in terms of increased pulse productivity, improved incomes and increased per capita pulse consumption.
Research Sharing and Technology Transfer
The ease of sharing information and technology provides an unprecedented opportunity to increase pulse consumption in non-traditional pulse consuming communities – regardless of whether they are developed, emerging or lesser developed economies. For purposes of illustration let’s use Japan as an example. With exception of traditional desserts (anko, sweetened beans) there is no tradition of pulse consumption in Japan. Japanese traditional cuisine (washoku) is based heavily on rice, seasonal ingredients, side dishes, seafood and noodles. Popular Japanese noodles are commonly made from wheat, buckwheat, konjac and rice – but not yet from pulses. Companies in the United States are using pulses in the manufacture of noodles, breads and snack foods. With technology transfer Japanese noodle manufacturers might also use pulse derivatives in their noodle products.
Author Patti Dingh said “Change occurs at the edges, without permission.” To me this powerful statement is a recognition that change is not always straight forward but may instead occur on the periphery. To increase pulse consumption in non-traditional consuming countries we must look for these transformative opportunities at the edges. In developed economies we must be mindful of trends that can seriously impact consumption patters (e.g., gluten free trend, flexitarian trend). In emerging economies, we must look for opportunities to create change that recognize the aspirational needs of consumers with more income and food choice options. And in lesser developed economies we must look to improve production systems with more research and development, create market linkages for pulse producers and educate both producers and consumers (particularly females). By doing so we can increase both incomes and per capita pulse consumption.