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United Nations Launches 2016 International Year of Pulses
By Ann Steensland
Deputy Director, Global Harvest Initiative
Throughout 2015, the UN International Year of Soils has brought renewed attention and urgency to the importance of soil health and its role in maximizing yields today and sustainably producing food, feed, fiber and fuel for generations to come. In recognition of the Year of Soils, GHI member companies and guest commentators have provided valuable insights on soil health and balanced crop nutrition for the Harvest 2050 blog. The 2015 GAP Report® Building Sustainable Breadbaskets highlights the importance of balanced crop nutrition in conserving and protecting natural resources, while increasing agricultural productivity in the U.S. and Zambia.
In 2016, global attention will be focused on pulses, a staple food for hundreds of millions of people. Pulses are a nutritious, potentially high-value crop grown primarily by small-scale farmers. Increasing pulse productivity and developing pulse value chains can help reduce the triple burden of poverty, malnutrition and obesity in some of the poorest, hungriest regions of the world.
What Are Pulses?[i]
U.S. consumers eat “pulses” and pulse products every day, although they are rarely called by that name. Pulses are dried beans and peas that are harvested solely as dry grains (as opposed to green beans which are considered vegetables, or soybeans and peanuts which are used for oil extraction.) FAO recognizes 11 categories of pulses; the most familiar pulses to American consumers are kidney, navy, pinto and lima beans, chickpeas, lentils and dry garden peas.
A Nutritious Seed for a Sustainable Future
Pulses offer multiple benefits for human health, both for people who are undernourished and those struggling with obesity. Pulses are nutrient-rich “super foods” that contain protein, fiber, probiotics, and carbohydrates, as well as minerals such as zinc and iron. True to their name, pulses promote heart health and can help control diabetes. (For more on the numerous health benefits of pulses, read Jennifer Brown’s blog at Everyday Health, Pulses: Mystery Superfoods with Big Health Benefits.)
Pulses also have nitrogen-fixing properties which is critical for soil health. For farmers, rotating pulse crops with cash crops such as maize, helps retain this vital nutrient and increases their overall productivity. (See the Harvest 2050 blog by Anita Foster of The Mosaic Company on the role of nitrogen in balanced crop nutrition.)
Pulse Value Chains
In addition to being a staple food, pulse flours can be used in high-value food products. U.S. consumers may see lentil chips next to the corn chips on their grocery store shelves, for example. This represents a potential market for pulse farmers. However, more than 85 percent of pulse production takes place on small-scale farms, principally for local consumption. The quality of the product and the yields are often inconsistent. These farmers also struggle to access agricultural technologies, knowledge and financing to increase the productivity of their operations. Poor access to transportation networks and markets is also a barrier for many. As a result, the majority of pulses used in value-added products are grown in large-scale operations in places like Canada that can produce the quality and quantity of pulses that food manufactures demand.
In declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses, the UN is raising awareness about the importance of pulses to human and soil health. Events are scheduled around the globe to bring together relevant stakeholders with the goal of increasing the productivity of pulses and integrating more small-scale farmers into the pulse value chain.
[i] “Pulses are annual leguminous crops yielding between one and 12 grains or seeds of variable size, shape and colour within a pod, used for both food and feed. The term “pulses” is limited to crops harvested solely for dry grain, thereby excluding crops harvested green for food, which are classified as vegetable crops, as well as those crops used mainly for oil extraction and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (based on the definition of “pulses and derived products” of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).” http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/