Little beans: realising the potential of pulses

Sensemaking / Little beans: realising the potential of pulses

Will 2016 see plant pod seeds outgrow their current share of just 4% in the global protein pie?

By Alisha Bhagat / 10 Dec 2015

To the average American, high protein foods are those that come from animals. Meat, eggs, and dairy are the top contenders. Nuts, seeds, and beans are often overlooked. This is not unusual. Currently, only 4% of the global protein supply comes from pulses. Despite the low carbon footprint and high protein content in pulses, people just aren’t eating them. The UN has announced that 2016 will be “The Year of Pulses” in order to raise awareness of better utilizing pulse-based proteins.

To start, many don’t know what exactly a pulse is. Pulses are part of the legume family, a group of plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. The subgroup of pulses refers to the dried seeds and includes lentils, chickpeas, and dried peas. Not only are pulses low-fat and high in fibre and protein, they are nitrogen-fixing crops that improve sustainability in annual cropping systems. One cup of chickpeas contains 12g of protein, 25% of the daily recommended value. Pulses are both healthy, and cheaper than animal protein in most places. They could be part of the nutritional solution with regards to obesity, diabetes, intestinal health, and malnutrition.

While pulses seem like the perfect food, many barriers exist to their widespread adoption.

- The first set of barriers has to do with supply: 90% of pulses are grown by smallholder farmers and there is huge diversity in the marketplace. There are 22 million pulse farmers in India alone – making it difficult for food and agricultural companies to easily source pulses.
- Post-harvest loss continues to be a problem in the developing world. An estimated 40% of food is wasted globally, including the food that never makes it to the consumer. In developing countries food is often spoiled before it reaches the market. In the case of pulses, pests can be a huge problem. Overuse of chemical pesticides on pulses in storage can in turn lead to health problems for humans who ingest them.
- Rising incomes impact demand. Pulses are part of a traditional diet in many countries but are often replaced with animal protein as incomes rise. For example, in India – a country that produces 25% of the global pulse yield, and consumes 30% of global supply – there is rising meat consumption, and alongside this there is malnutrition among the poorest of the population. The poor, who want to buy pulses, often can’t afford them, and the rich are shifting consumption away from them. Both groups could benefit from an increased consumption of plant-based proteins.

We are currently experiencing a perfect storm where climate change, urbanization, and changing diets are leading to problems in agricultural sustainability, food supply, and human health and nutrition. While much press is given to advances in food technology such as lab-grown meat, pulses provide a sustainable, low-tech, plant-based solution to global hunger and the health crisis.

In the future, we may see:

- More resources put towards genoplasm collection and identification of desired traits in pulses. With advances in genomic tools such as CRSPR – enabling genome editing – we may be able to edit pulses for desired and undesired traits. One example is selective editing for climate change resilience. 
- Greater promotion of traditional diets. Organisations such as Oldways promote meals that have a wide variety of plants and pulses. The use of pulses in cooking is part of a widespread shift towards the promotion of home cooking and plant-based diets
Prescribing foods as medicine. While some doctors currently prescribe foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pulses to patients, this practice could become more widespread as doctors try new techniques to nudge patients into making healthy choices.
- Greater transparency in food chains. Removing supply chain uncertainty will go a long way in getting pulses to market and ensuring that major food companies are able to use pulses in food products. This could be done on the farmer side through agricultural cooperatives or commodities markets.

Data for this article came from the workshop ‘Little Beans, Big Opportunities: Realizing the Potential of Pulses to Meet Today’s Global Health Challenges’ held at the New York Academy of Sciences on November 19, 2015. More information is available here.

Image credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture / Flickr

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