Jeff Ehlers, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Pulse crops are good to grow, good to eat

Pulse crops offer smallholder farmers a multi-faceted way to improve food security, diet, and soil health as well as economic returns and income stability. With the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen to usable forms, pulses make their own nitrogen fertilizer. Even better, the nitrogen that is fixed becomes available to subsequent crops grown in the same field. When farmers plant pulses together with a main cereal crop (intercropping), just after the main crop (relay crop), or as a short-season ‘catch’ crop, they can boost overall land productivity. By rotating pulses and cereals, soil fertility is improved and cycles of pests and disease that harm cereal yields can be broken. Adding pulses to cropping systems gives farmers alternative crops to sell and income stability in the face of volatile cereal prices. Often grown and sold by women farmers, pulse crops can unlock doors of opportunity for rural women.

Pulses play an important role in the fight against malnutrition. They contain two to three times as much protein as cereals such as rice, wheat, or maize and can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Pulse leaves and immature pods can be consumed as nutritious vegetables and pulse grains provide vitamins, minerals, and protein. Livestock health and yields can get a boost when animals are fed non-grain portions of pulse plants.

So, why aren’t pulses grown on every field?

Pulses should be a greater part of all agricultural systems, especially in developing nations where inorganic fertilizers can be three to four times more expensive due to the high cost of transport and ‘small-quantity’ distribution and retailing. Although the prices farmers receive for their pulse crops are typically more than double what they obtain from cereal crops, pulse yields are lower and production risks are perceived to be higher. We need to raise pulse productivity by disseminating agronomic knowledge, delivering improved seed and other inputs, and adjusting policies that encourage farmers to grow cereals at the expense of pulses. For example, crop price supports (such as credit and insurance programs) promote cereal crop production — often for national food security considerations. As well, pulse R&D spending has lagged behind other crops and, over time, so has relative productivity.

How can we fix it?

To improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia, the Agricultural Development Team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is expanding their access to seeds and technologies of improved varieties of three important pulse crops — cowpea, chickpea and common bean.

One of our biggest pulse projects puts pulses’ nitrogen-fixing ability to work for smallholder farmers. Our N2Africa project is led by Wageningen University in the Netherlands in partnership with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and national partners in eleven countries in sub-Saharan Africa. By identifying and deploying better ‘N-fixing’ inoculant technologies and improved legume production techniques, farmers in several regions of Africa are increasing their crop and livestock productivity, human nutrition, and farm income, while enhancing soil health. In the first phase, over 230,000 farmers evaluated and employed improved grain legume varieties, rhizobium inoculants, and phosphate based fertilizers. Running until 2019, the second phase will boost pulse productivity of over half a million smallholder farmers, while incubating private sector delivery of improved inoculants.

Breeding confidence

Smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia need pulse crop varieties that resist pests and disease and tolerate poor soils, drought, and high temperatures. Our second largest pulse investment is the Tropical Legumes III project led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) with International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), CIAT (International Center of Tropical Agriculture), seven African National Research Institutes (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali), and the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh Chickpea Improvement Program. Tropical Legumes III invests in developing and delivering improved pulse cultivars for smallholders and bolstering the performance of breeding programs so that they can efficiently generate new varieties of cowpea, common bean, and chickpea to meet future challenges that will emerge as climate change advances.

Since 2007, this project has helped to develop and release more than 100 new pulse varieties of the three target crops and exposed more than 300,000 farmers to these new varieties and to improved production technologies through field days and other events. As new varieties quickly replace old varieties in the project areas, significant increases in productivity and production can be detected at national level. Other outcomes include workable and efficient models for production of different seed categories and empowerment of women to produce and market legume seed. The project estimates that it has catalyzed the production and delivery of more than 200,000 metric tons of improved pulse seed across its target geographies. A key challenge will be sustaining the progress made after the end of the project.

It’s in the bag

Our third biggest investment, the Purdue Improved Crops Storage (PICS) project, led by Purdue University and now in its third phase (PICS3) since its start in 2007, is helping to get hermetic grain storage bags into the hands of hundreds of thousands of farmers using a sustainable public-private delivery model. The use of PICS bags prevents loss of stored pulse grains from pests and thus provides farmers the flexibility to sell their grains when they choose while supplying healthy, clean, and insecticide-free food to their families throughout the year. PICS bags were developed by Purdue University professor Larry Murdock to reduce the devastating post-harvest losses in West Africa from cowpea weevil infestation. The technology is now being extended to common bean and cereal crops in Sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 5 million bags sold to date. This new technology has also created new business opportunities. PICS project staff are working with local manufacturers to produce PICS bags and with entrepreneurs to distribute them throughout West and Central Africa

Quickening the pulse

The Gates Foundation will continue to invest in better breeds of pulse crops and in helping smallholder farmers gain access to the seed of these improved varieties as well as improved technologies that increase their pulse productivity. The pulse research and development community is small and their access to resources limited, especially given that there are multiple pulse crop types — each with specific research needs — grown over immense geographic areas and sold through many different market systems (even within crops). These considerations mean we must work together when we can to maximize our collective service to smallholders.

The 2016 International Year of Pulses provides a rallying point to bring this multi-crop, multi-region community together to make a united case for more favorable treatment of pulses as a global nutrition and pro-environment opportunity. There are also possibilities for organizations to coalesce around specific technical areas — for example, solutions to disease threats are relevant to all pulse crop types. In some cases, it might be worthwhile to encourage companies to develop food products from less common pulse crops to create incentives for farmers to grow more of these and to create space for aggregation at scale. Coordinated pulse research investments are needed to seize the potential that pulse crops offer for farmers’ livelihoods and better nutrition. Let’s give smallholders in Africa a stronger pulse!

Next week, the 2016 African Green Revolution Forum will convene representatives from government, farmer organizations, business, sustainable development, research, and finance who are committed to thriving, inclusive agriculture in Africa. Integrating pulses into cropping systems is a solution that African farmers can seize now to lift themselves out of poverty and increase their food security.