Pulses and legumes are nutrient-rich grains central to agricultural systems and culinary use throughout the world. As critical part of the food basket, they contribute substantial amounts of plant-based proteins, dietary fibre as well as various minerals (iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur and zinc), vitamins (B1, B3, B6, B10 & vitamin E) and phytochemicals. While some pulses may contain anti-nutritional factors, in certain individuals, excess consumption may cause bloating/flatulence. However soaking, cooking, germination and fermentation help in overcoming these adverse effects.
Germination and fermentation not only enhance their digestibility but also improve protein quality and bioavailability of the minerals. There is increased synthesis of many of the vitamins; while germination helps in an upsurge of vitamin C, fermentation enormously raises the level of B-group vitamins. Apart from nutritional enhancement, germination reduces cooking time and helps in fuel conservation.
Pulses being rich in soluble and insoluble dietary fibre, prevent constipation and help in decreasing blood cholesterol as well as controlling blood sugar levels. Being saturated fatty acid and cholesterol free, pulses are superior to animal-protein foods. In view of their low glycaemic index, low fat and high fibre content, pulses should form an integral part of a healthy diet particularly for the individuals suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and overweight/obesity. Pulses are rich in several bioactive compounds (phytochemicals; antioxidants) which confer anti-cancer properties and promote bone health. Being gluten-free, these are highly suitable for celiac disease patients.
Though energy value of pulses is similar to that of the cereals/millets, nutritionally these are far better!! When added to cereals, pulses help to enhance protein quality of the mixture by virtue of mutual supplementation.
WHO reports that a sizeable NCD burden can be lowered by promoting healthy eating practices with special emphasis on appropriate amounts of pulses. To quote FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, “Pulses have been an essential part of the human diet for centuries, yet, their nutritional value is not generally recognized and is frequently under-appreciated.”
The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP) and nominated FAO to facilitate its implementation in collaboration with various Governments, relevant organizations, NGOs and other stakeholders. The aim was to enhance public awareness regarding nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production for achieving food/nutrition security. It was envisaged that IYP will create a unique opportunity to encourage appropriate network across the food chains for better utilization of pulse-based proteins as well as enhance pulse production and address trade related challenges. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had remarked that pulses contribute significantly towards addressing hunger, malnutrition, environmental challenges, food security and human health; and can thus, help to achieve the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals. Despite numerous health and nutritional benefits, pulse consumption remains low in many of the developing/developed nations.
Since pulse production leaves much lower carbon footprint (than many animal protein sources), they greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These short-duration multi-use crops (food, fodder, fuel) can help to improve livelihood of farmers and pave way for crop diversification/intensification. Improved cropping patterns using pulses can help to overcome long-term food insecurity due to soil degradation. CO2 equivalent for 1 kg pulse is merely 0.5kg as against 9.5kg for beef; this has a great bearing in the light of climate change.
India is the world’s largest pulse producing country and contributes nearly 28% of global production; yet, the total availability is far lesser than the domestic requirement (estimated pulse production during 2015-16 was 17 MT). For meeting the domestic needs, 5.79 MT of pulses were imported resulting in escalated pulse prices. In 2010, while globally the estimated average yield of pulses was 819kg/ha, it was far lower in India (600kg/ha). To quote Ranjit Kumar, ICRISAT –“The shortfall in pulse production can be achieved by tapping nearly 6-7million hectares of rice fallows in Eastern India”.
For escalating pulse production, various governmental efforts include: India and Mozambique’s long-term deal for importing pulses (for plugging the shortfall and containing prices). In addition, fixing of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for pulses and declaring a bonus of Rs 200/quintal (Kharif pulses; 2015-16) and Rs 75/quintal (Rabi pulses; 2016-17) beyond the MSP as well as government’s approval for enhancing the buffer stock (up to 2 MT) is expected to stabilize the pulse prices and encourage the farmers to increase pulse production.
Launch of ‘Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana’ and crop insurance portal/Mobile app as well as pan India electronic trading platform to integrate the regulated markets with single license validity/single entry point market fee shall greatly benefit the farmers.
Soil Health Cards indicating soil fertility status along with the advise on use of fertilizers is another initiative. The Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojna for promoting organic farming and marketing of the produce and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana for efficient usage of water is another move.
NFSM focuses on improving production/productivity of pulses. Nearly a sum of Rs 1100 crore has been allocated for improving pulse production during 2016-17. Organizing quality seed production-cum-awareness field days to highlight the importance of quality seeds as well as allocation of Rs. 20.39 crore to ICAR/Agriculture Universities for increasing the availability of new pulse-variety breeder seeds is another positive step. Inter cropping of pulses with other crops is being encouraged. A number of schemes have been launched for the development of agriculture and farmers’ welfare. In view of good monsoon, following two drought years, current pulse output is estimated to reach 20 MT (2016-17) which is still lower than the domestic demand (23-24 MT). Therefore, the BRICS nations have been approached and it was commented that India would like to seek cooperation from member countries (BRICS) in helping to meet our production shortfall in crops like pulses and oilseeds.
In addition, it is envisaged that generating awareness regarding nutritional value of the pulses can help the consumers to adopt healthier dietary patterns. Pulses – the nutrient rich smart food are good for human health, the planet and the farmers, particularly those with small-holdings!!
*Dr Santosh Jain Passi – Public Health Nutrition Consultant; Former Director, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi
** Ms Akanksha Jain – Ph D Scholar, – works in the field of Public Health and Nutrition.
Views expressed in the Article are his personal.