The International Year of Pulses: Keeping the Momentum Beyond 2016
By Boubaker BEN BELHASSEN Director, Trade and Markets Division UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO)
In recognition of the contribution that pulses can make to human well-being and to the environment, as well as the need for promoting policies and actions to support their consumption and production, the UN General Assembly, at its 68th Session, declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP). The Year sought to: raise awareness of the contribution of pulses to food security and nutrition; encourage all relevant actors to expand the production of pulses; and promote the consumption of pulses in the context of a balanced diet.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been nominated to facilitate the implementation of the Year, in collaboration with governments, relevant organizations, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and all other relevant stakeholders.
Pulses can play a crucial role in achieving food security, good nutrition and sustainable development due to their important nutritional, environmental and economic values. They can make an important contribution to achieving several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly SDG1, SDG2, SDG3, SDG12 and SDG13. Pulses are inextricably linked to:
• Food security, as they are a critical and relatively inexpensive source of plant-based protein, vitamins and minerals for people around the world;
• Human health, as their consumption can prevent and help manage obesity, diabetes and other health conditions;
• Sustainable agriculture, as they are able to biologically fix nitrogen and free soil- bound phosphorous, which are very important for efficient resource management and ecosystem health; and
• Climate change adaptation and mitigation, as they can provide climate-resilient varieties and reduce organic and nonorganic agricultural inputs.
Pulses and human health and nutrition
Pulses are some of the most nutritious crops on the planet. They have a high content of protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds, while being low in fat and sodium. Pulses contain about 20–25 percent of protein, i.e. double that of wheat and triple that of rice. When consumed together with cereals, the protein quality is significantly improved, providing a complete amino acid profile. Pulses thus represent an important source of protein for a large part of the world and can be used to substitute for meat protein. The combination of high fibre and slowly digested starch increases satiety and helps healthy weight control. Pulses are rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and B-vitamins. Because of the beneficial combination of components,pulses can reduce the risk of developing anaemia, cancer, diabetes and heart disease by improving gut health and lowering blood cholesterol. Overall, eating pulses regularly can help improve nutrition and human health.
Additionally, as they are dried seeds, pulses can be stored for long time, increasing their year- round food availability and usability. Pulses can be stored for years without spoiling and still retain their nutrients, although the longer they are stored the more timeconsuming and expensive it becomes to cook them. As a general rule, pulses will retain excellent quality for 18 months.
Pulses and sustainable agricultural production
In order to capitalize on the remarkable characteristics of pulses, some key bottlenecks need to be addressed. These include the lack of policies to promote the production of pulses, research and extension; the lack of access to local and global markets, including seeds; and the need to gather evidence on farming practices to improve pulse-based production systems, especially addressing family farmers and rural poor households.
Between 1961 and 2014, world average yields of pulses grew much slower than those of cereals (0.74 percent per year, compared to 1.85 percent per year for cereals). There is also a large disparity between the yields in developing countries (cultivated mainly on small farms) and those in developed countries (mainly on large, commercial farms). Consequently, closing the yield gap for pulses is a primary challenge especially in countries where pulses play a significant role in diets.
Pulses and climate change
The inclusion of pulses in agricultural production systems can reduce the contribution of agriculture to climate change. Their cultivation helps to reduce greenhouse gases and provides increased carbon sequestration, which is good for the planet. Because of their nitrogen-fixing abilities, their inclusion in crop rotations allows farmers to reduce the use of fertilizers (organic and synthetic) and, therefore, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In forage legume/grass mixtures, nitrogen is also transferred from pulses to grass, increasing pasture production.
When pulses are included in feed for livestock, the food conversion ratio is enhanced and, thus, methane emissions from ruminants are reduced, leading to increased efficiency and a reduction in GHG emissions. Pulses can also play a role in adaptation to climate change: they have a broad genetic diversity from which improved varieties can be selected and more climate-resilient strains developed.
Key activities celebrating the IYP 2016
A large number of activities were undertaken throughout 2016 to celebrate the Year. These included:
• Outreach activities, including information and dissemination through publications, the web and social media. A dedicated website has been set up with news, multimedia resources, links to factsheets and publications, promotional material and a blog that collects real stories about the importance of pulses in everyday lives. This is complemented by a social media outreach campaign on Twitter and Facebook. In June 2016, a book entitled “Pulses: Nutritious seeds for a sustainable future” was published by FAO.
• Regional and global awareness-raising campaigns, aiming at enabling discussions among different actors (civil society, farmers, private sector, government representatives and policy makers, researchers, etc.) and increasing their understanding of the fundamental role of pulses.
• Regional dialogues, designed to identify region-specific obstacles hampering the improvement of the production and consumption of pulses and a Global Dialogue event held in late November to recap on the year’s activities and achievements.
• A database on pulses comprising an analytical food composition database on pulses and an open access food composition database of selected varieties based on the importance of the pulse and available data.
• Preparation of a report on the World Economy of Pulses, elaborating on the world pulses market situation and recent trends, including production, yields, utilization, trade and prices, and also value chains. The report also contains a chapter presenting projections for production, utilization and trade of pulses for the next ten years. • Research and scientific papers and studies, such as a publication focusing on the nutritional role of pulses byproducts for domestic animals that provide milk, eggs and meat.
In addition to these activities, six IYP Special Ambassadors were appointed by the FAO Director-General to raise public awareness and promote the benefits of pulses. The six Special Ambassadors, who come from different regions from around the world, are all prominent figures in their respective region and were chosen on the basis of their knowledge and expertise in pulses.
It is clear that a lot has been achieved during the IYP. However, the goal now should be to keep the momentum of all the good work and to capitalize on the achievements. It is essential that all relevant stakeholders, without exception, continue the work on pulses beyond 2016. While the responsibility falls on all of us, governments in particular are urged to develop and implement appropriate policies and programs for promoting the production and consumption of pulses. This is very important for our future.