Written by Gabrielle Kissinger, Lexeme Consulting

The addition of lentils and peas onto Saskatchewan, Canada farms has been a goldmine.  The addition of these pulse crops has helped to keep farmers on the farm and to keep farm communities relatively intact even as rural populations have been declining.  In 2014, lentils and peas brought CD$2.7 billion (US$2.03 billion) in export sales. Hectares seeded to pulses increased 1,000% between 1981 and 2011.  These pulse crops were new additions into cereal-fallow rotations that were prone to pest and disease outbreaks and erosion.  Farmers increasingly looked to pulse crops to replace summer fallow, add another crop in the rotation, and bring in some extra profit.  

And benefits extend beyond increased income. When adding pulses into crop rotations, farmers often alter their plowing practices, shifting from conventional tillage to conservation tillage, which minimizes soil disturbance and maintains greater organic soil cover.  This practice helps to control erosion and it also dovetails with diversification of crop sequences (such as wheat, oats, canola and pulses and oilseeds).  Since pulses fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, introducing pulses into the crop sequence reduces fertilizer requirements for pulse crops as well as for subsequent grain crops (which also get a yield boost).  This lower fertilizer requirement has been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cropping systems overall, sometimes by as much as 31% annually, such as in the case of lentils added in rotation with spring wheat.

If the production of pulse crops brought such strong environmental, social and economic benefit to Saskatchewan, could it bring similar benefits to other regions around the world?  And how could such measures of sustainability (measured as net gains across environmental, social and economic criteria) be applied in diverse contexts around the world, which could range from the Sahel region of Africa to India, the largest pulse-consuming nation? 

These are the questions which a new report, “Pulse crops and sustainability: A framework to evaluate multiple benefits,” sought to answer.  With the UN declaration of the 2016 International Year of Pulses, more attention is being given to the role of pulses—beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and other pulses—in our food system.  The world will need more food and more protein in the future, and pulses can be an increasingly important source of nutrition, while providing other benefits as well.  The report proposes a framework for assessing the environmental, social and economic benefits and trade-offs of increasing pulse production, based on observations from around the world.  Two case studies are explored in further detail—Saskatchewan, Canada and pulse producing regions of Sub-Saharan Africa—covering both developed and developing country contexts.  In both contexts, finding evidence of the social and economic aspects of pulse production was not as easy as literature on the environmental benefits of adding pulses to crop rotations.  Yet the social and economic contributions of pulses in these two different parts of the world are significant and are crucial for farmers, livelihoods, and food security.  

The framework is intended to be used as a decision support tool. For each criterion, or key attribute, of sustainability relevant to pulse production (refer to Figure 1) a set of questions guides evaluation of the sustainability of potential management decisions, including common trade-offs.  The questions are indicative, and should be adapted to local circumstances.  

Figure 1: Summary of pulse crop sustainability framework and application steps

The questions to evaluate sustainability also pertain to different scales of impact—at production levels, within a region, and global scales—as the figure below identifies.

Figure 2: Attributes of pulse crop sustainability at various scales

A range of different stakeholders will find utility in applying the framework.  For instance, food sector companies could use the framework to track the sustainability aspects of increasing the use of pulse flour blended into manufactured foods.  The framework would help the company identify key questions to test sustainability and potential impacts at the production, regional and global scales.  The company could use the framework as a tool to keep the big picture in mind, while also tracking important details such as soil health and changes in water and herbicide use.  

Government or policy-makers could apply the framework to evaluate options based on sustainability for investing in research and technology to boost pulse production, or to invest in rural agricultural development.  The framework identifies the most important environmental, social and economic indicators to test performance against, and guides consideration of benefits and impacts at the production, regional and global scales.  For instance, at the production scale, targeted support to farmers on improved practices and adoption of climate resilient varieties of seeds requires considering how to help farmers troubleshoot their management options to maximize labour use efficiency, get the right balance in tillage and crop residue management, optimize the pulse crop without impacting yields of other key crops, and lower fuel and input costs.  The regional benefits of increased protein and nutrient availability, cash crops for export, and global benefits of lower fertilizer use and therefore reduced nitrous oxide emissions are important additional considerations for policymakers to test overall impacts.

Our collective challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, with significant increases in per capita meat consumption, requires creative solutions, based on sustainability.  The role of pulses to help meet this need is increasingly being recognized.  While this framework is not a blueprint for how other producing regions can replicate Saskatchewan’s dramatic success in the last twenty years, it does provide a means to evaluate the environmental, social and economic benefits and trade-offs of increasing pulse production, and shares perspectives from around the world.    

Read the press release here.

See the full report.