Dr. Tom Warkentin, Professor, Crop Development Centre / Department of Plant Sciences, University of Saskatchewan
Dr. Christine Negra, Versant Vision LLC

The International Year of Pulses is reminding the world that pulse crops play an important role in the sustainability of global agriculture and food systems, and that their potential is not currently being fully realized. Pulse crops use less fertilizer than other crops, they break up disease cycles in crop rotations, they provide tasty and nutritious foods, and they can deliver very good financial returns to producers.

Yet, pulses are under-represented in crop production in many parts of the world. Unlike the massive research investments that have been made for major cereal and oilseed crops, research in pulse crops has been relatively meager. More research is needed, in particular, to improve the ability of pulses to withstand biotic and abiotic stresses that take a serious toll on pulse crop yields.

Dealing with disease

Despite the challenging funding environment, scientists presented an impressive body of work on dealing with pulse crop diseases at the recent 4th International Ascochyta Blight Workshop and International Legume Society conferences in Troia, Portugal. Research is in progress to characterize genetic sources of disease resistance that can be found in crop cultivars and wild relatives. For example, in some cases, selecting pulse crop varieties with appropriate upright architecture represents a promising pathway for reducing the impact of diseases. New cultivars, strengthened with useful traits, can be developed using tools such as recurrent selection, marker assisted selection, and, genomic selection, a more recent addition to the toolbox. Efforts to breed resistant pulse cultivars are complemented by integrated pest management approaches, which include optimizing seeding rate and date, seed health, crop rotation, and use of fungicides.

Diversifying diets

Pulse research is about more than just yield. While pulses are an important part of the diets in many cultures around the world, they are also part of a growing number of new commercial food products. This is driven, in part, by research on developing useful ingredients from pulses. There is growing experience with fractionation of pulse crops into their protein, starch, and fiber components, and these pulse ingredients are making their way into many products which are appearing on store shelves. These products provide convenient alternatives for consumers seeking to reduce their meat consumption and diversify their diets. Of course, consumption of whole pulse grains remains the gold standard in terms of nutrition and reduced cost of processing.

Regional response

The world’s sprawling and dynamic food system is facing real challenges from climate change including increased risk of drought and disease outbreaks in farm fields. At the same time, market expectations for food commodities are continually changing and pulse producers will increasingly be asked to meet quality standards such as nutrient content and reduced pesticide use. New risks and market demands will be different for different regions of the world. This means that local and regional systems for research and development are needed to anticipate local and regional risks and to develop cost-effective responses to emerging problems and opportunities.

For example, in western Canada, research on pulse crops has been relatively strong in the past two decades. Farmers who participate in grower associations provide levies that are invested in research, and governments put in money where growers are already investing. Universities do their part as well and pulse producers and university researchers in this region have worked together on outcome-focused innovation that led to real improvements in productivity and environmental benefits. Universities are also an important source of new knowledge for food companies seeking to meet the growing interest in healthy foods that provide benefits for reducing diseases like diabetes. To make real headway on major pulse research objectives, better core support is needed for academic researchers to dedicate committed, consistent effort toward critical challenges.

This week, at the Canadian Pulse Research Workshop in Winnipeg, pulse researchers from different disciplines will share the latest science on agronomy, pathology, environmental effects, genetics, plant breeding, and nutrition, including a half-day session on pulse protein quality.