10th February 2022
World Pulses Day 2022
Pulses are considered a poor man’s food and poor people are disparagingly called ‘pulse-eaters’. In addition, some linguistic groups are called pulse-eaters just out of prejudice and without acknowledging the fact that due to their nutritional value, pulses are in no way inferior to any other food items and are, without any doubt, a great substitute for pricey foods. Keeping in view the health and nutritional benefits as well as those in economic, social and environmental and agricultural domains, the United Nations had declared, on the proposal from Pakistan and Turkey, the year 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. Later, in 2018, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate 10 February as World Pulses Day. Hence, on the same date in the very next year, i.e. 2019, the first World Pulses Day was observed across the globe. Since then, this world day is celebrated with an aim to raise awareness about nutritional value and benefits of pulses as well as about their significance in contributing to sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition,
Pulses, also known as legumes, are the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food. These are dry and have a lower fat content. The FAO recognizes 11 types of pulses and does not include crops that are harvested green (e.g. green peas, green beans)—these are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soybean and groundnuts) and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa).
Pulses are critical in addressing the challenges of poverty, food security, human health and nutrition, soil health and environment, thereby contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Pulses and Human Health & Nutrition
Pulses make an integral part of a healthy, balanced diet. They improve digestion, lower blood glucose levels, reduce inflammation, lower blood cholesterol, and treat chronic health problems such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and obesity. They also promote bone health and have high fibre content — both soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre helps lower blood cholesterol levels and control blood sugar while the insoluble fibre helps to flush out toxins in the intestines.
In addition, pulses help stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, making them an ideal food for weight management. The table salt we use is called sodium chloride and has high amount of sodium which causes high blood pressure. Since pulses are also low in sodium, this dangerous health condition can be avoided by eating them. Pulses are also high in potassium, which promotes heart health and helps with digestion and muscle functioning. Pulses are rich in bioactive compounds such as phytochemicals and antioxidants that have anti-cancer properties.
Malnutrition is one of the major contributors to many diseases and it, sometimes, even causes death. This condition is the result of eating too little, too much or an imbalanced diet that lacks the right amount and quality of nutrients our bodies require to stay healthy. Pulses have high nutritional content; for example, they are an excellent source of plant-based proteins and micronutrients. So, eating pulses as part of a healthy diet can help alleviate many aspects of malnutrition, ranging from nutritional and micronutrient deficiencies to obesity and being overweight.
Pulses provide protein, dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and carbohydrates. They are especially rich in folate, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc and potassium. Iron helps carry oxygen throughout the body which increases energy production and improves metabolism. Iron deficiency is considered among the most common forms of malnutrition and it is one of the most common causes of anaemia (deficiency of red blood cells). The high amount of iron in pulses makes them a powerful food for preventing anaemia, especially in women and children. Especially, when it is used in combination with foods containing vitamin C, the ability to absorb iron can be further improved.
Since pulses are low in calories (260-360 kcal/100 g dried pulses), they are slowly digested and give a feeling of satiety. Moreover, they are a great source of plant-based protein. It may be surprising for some to note that 100 grams of a dried pulse contain around 25 grams of protein. However, pulses absorb a lot of water during the cooking process, thus their protein content is reduced by about 8%. Even then, you can still increase the protein quality of cooked pulses by mixing cereals in your diet, for example, pulses with rice. Although they are tiny in appearance, yet pulses are full of protein and contain twice the amount of that in wheat and three times as much as that in rice. Unlike meat or milk sources, pulses do not contain traces of hormones or antibiotics used in animal production. Hence, they are naturally gluten-free.
Pulses and Poverty
Pulses are packed with nutrients and have high protein content, making them an ideal source of protein particularly in regions where meat and dairy are not physically or economically accessible. In many countries, meat, dairy and fish are expensive and, thus, out of reach of a large chunk of population, especially the poor. Therefore, such people rely on plant-based food to meet their protein needs, of which pulses are the most important. Since they require fewer agricultural inputs, producing pulses does not put any additional economic burden on small farmers. Moreover, they can be grown even in severe climatic conditions. Small farmers can not only sell pulses as a cash crop but also use them to meet their own nutritional needs. At the same time, they can use the residue of the crop as a fodder for their livestock. In addition, pulses can be stored for a long period of time without losing nutrients, and do not require additional resources for this purpose. It can help increase the food diversity of the poor. As we know that poverty leads to nutritional imbalances that reduce work capacity of people — ergo limited human capital — which further exacerbates the menace of poverty. Pulses are an affordable source of protein and minerals for a large population, and eating them not only protects poor people’s ability to work but also protects them from disease; hence, breaking this vicious circle of poverty.
Pulses and Food Security
The FAO defines food security as: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
This definition points to the following four dimensions of food security: availability, stability, safe use and accessibility. Pulses seem to fulfil all these four criteria as they can be stored for months without losing their high nutritional value, which enables sustainable availability of food between crops.
Pulses can be cultivated in arid climates that have limited, and often erratic, rainfall. These are the lands where other crops can fail or produce low yields. Additionally, drought-resistant and deep-rooting species are not only able to improve food security and nutrition of farmers in marginal environments, but pulses can also supply groundwater to companion crops when planted in intercropping systems. People living in dry environments, where food security represents a huge challenge, can intensify their production systems in a sustainable manner using locally adapted pulses. Pulses have a long shelf life, so they are safe to use for a longer period of time. In many countries, meat, milk and fish make an expensive source of protein and thus economically inaccessible to many people. In these circumstances, pulses form a great and affordable alternate to other costly protein sources, and fortunately, they are accessible to the majority of people across the globe.
Pulses and Climate Change
Climate change has emerged as one of the most daunting environmental challenge of our times. Food production, food security and climate change are intrinsically linked. Less rains, erratic rain patterns, sudden rise in temperatures and droughts are posing a danger to the production of many crops including pulses. Changes in the monsoon pattern cause delays in sowing of Kharif crops, resulting in delays in sowing of pulses in Rabi season. Late-sown crops are exposed to extreme heat during their growth which reduces their potential yield. In addition, the changing climate often facilitates the emergence of pests and infections, which can lead to a significant reduction in crop produce.
Although pulses are also exposed to the negative effects of climate change, yet they reduce the stimuli that cause this phenomenon. Since pulses are legumes; their roots contain bacteria that make nodules and provide plants with nitrogen they extract from the air.
With minimized dependence on synthetic fertilizers used to artificially inject nitrogen into the soil and less emissions of gases from them, this plays a significant role in mitigating climate change.
According to FAO, pulses are grown on approximately 190 million hectares globally and they contribute 5 to 7 million tons of nitrogen to the soil. The production of pulses leads to lower carbon footprints than that during the production of other sources of protein (mostly animal-based). For example, a study shows that the production of one kilogram of pulses (legumes) emits only 0.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide gas whereas 1kg of beef produces 9.5kg of that. Moreover, when pulses are added to animal fodder, their high protein content helps to increase the rate of food conversion in animals and decrease the emission of methane from ruminants. So, it helps to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.
Wide genetic diversity of pulses allows the cultivation of select varieties suitable to the climate they are to be sown in, especially in areas affected by climate change. Since pulses are smart in terms of climate, they adapt to climate and contribute to mitigating the negative effects of climate change. For example, drought-resistant pulses can be grown in dry climates because they require less water than other sources of protein. A recent research in this regard shows that the production of one kg of lentils requires 1250 litres of water, that of one kg of chicken meat requires 4325 litres, of mutton 5520 litres and of beef 13000 litres of water.
Pulses and Agricultural Benefits
Since pulses are legumes and their roots increase soil fertility after rotting, their cultivation helps in maintaining the fertility of the soil. Spring cultivation of pulses plays an important role in areas where wheat or Rabi crops cannot be grown in areas with sugarcane, rice and cotton. Pulses can fix their nitrogen in the soil so they need less fertilizer, both organic and synthetic. The ability of nitrogen-fixation improves soil fertility which, in turn, enhances crop yields. When cultivated in an intercropping system, pulses can also provide groundwater to companion crops. Inclusion of pulses in crop rotations helps reduce the risks of soil erosion and depletion. In addition, by using indigenous varieties, the helps improve the carbon sequestration potential in comparison to monocrop system. (… to be continued)
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