icp_fao20 April 2016: Two events organized as part of the International Year of Pulses (IYP 2016) have called for increased efforts to scale up global production of pulses, such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils, due to their multiple benefits as nutrient-dense, soil improving and “climate-smart” crops. The International Conference on Pulses for Health, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture in Drylands (ICP 2016) took place from 18-20 April in Rabat, Morocco, while the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) hosted a seminar in Rome, Italy addressing the links between pulses and soils (the focus of international efforts in 2015), on 19 April 2016.

Co-organized by FAO, Bioversity International of the CGIAR Consortium and the Permanent Representation of Italy to the UN, the Rome seminar titled ‘Soils and pulses: symbiosis for life,’ focused on the reciprocal relationship between soils and pulses, and their contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With expert panelists and keynote speakers from intergovernmental agencies, research institutions and non-governmental organizations, the seminar specifically addressed how pulses can contribute to the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2) (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture) and SDG 15 (protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss). The discussions highlighted a variety of programmes working to improve the productivity of key pulse crops, enhance their contribution to sustainable intensification (producing more food with less natural resources), and expand pulses’ genetic diversity in order to boost plant resistance to diseases and pests. Other presentations highlighted the contribution of pulse production and consumption to sustainable rural development and livelihoods.

In a keynote address linking the seminar with ICP 2016, Mahmoud Solh, Director-General of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), noted that through their nitrogen-fixing properties, pulses significantly reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers by “millions of tons” globally. Highlighting pulses’ contribution to health and nutrition, he discussed a Sri Lankan project that provided iron-rich lentils to children, noting it revealed pulses’ “remarkable efficacy” in addressing malnutrition issues in developing countries.

ICP 2016 was hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of Morocco, and co-organized by International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA – Morocco), Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) Foundation, Morocco, the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD), the CGIAR Research Program on Grain-Legumes and FAO. One of the main objectives of the conference, which drew more than 300 participants from 36 countries, was to explore strategies to improve the nutritional situation of almost two billion people, while contributing to sustainable land management in dryland regions, where local communities are increasingly vulnerable to climate change. The conference also sought to reinforce global scientific collaboration and attract increased funding for pulses research and development.

Michael Hage, FAO Representative in Morocco, underscored the important role that pulses will play in achieving the Zero Hunger goal by 2030 because of their nutrient-density, affordability and positive impact on soil, and their potential to mitigate climate change by reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers. Highlighting additional “sustainable productivity intensification gains” from intercropping cereals with pulses, Solh noted that rotating pulses and sesame crops during the rice fallow period in India could increase the productivity of 11 million hectares of farmland, leading to higher revenues for farmers of around US$450/ha.

In his keynote address, Rattan Lal, distinguished Professor of Soil Science, Ohio State University, highlighted the need to increase food production for the projected global population of almost 10 billion in 2050, noting “there are 2.4 billion guests coming to dinner, invited by us, and we have to make sure we provide food for them.” Presenting his “out of the box” vision for 2050, Lal proposed paying pulse farmers for their contribution to biological nitrogen fixation and carbon sequestration, noting that they account for 20-22 million MT of biological nitrogen fixation in the soil each year, which he estimated as being worth US$50 billion. He also suggested investing in “smart farming” for a future in which “plants that talk to us through chemical messaging,” allowing farmers to intervene before a plant is damaged.

In a presentation highlighting the role of pulses in meeting the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global targets for reducing child stunting, anemia and low birth weight, Dilrukshi Thavarajah, Clemson University, South Carolina, described how increased planting of bio-fortified lentils in 1.2 million ha of rice fallow in Bangladesh has helped not only to counter anemia in children, but also to treat arsenic contaminated groundwater. Noting, however, that the world is changing from “an era of under-nutrition to one of global obesity,” she called on researchers to advise breeders to include the nutrition quality traits into their pulse breeding programs.

ICP 2016 also highlighted the growing gap between global supply and demand for pulses – with a projected rise in demand to 81.9 million tons in 2030, from the current level of around 70 million tons – but noted that improved policies and investments in pulses research and technology transfer could help to bridge this gap. Discussing “what next” steps, the two events highlighted opportunities to address the “yield gap” in many pulse-producing countries, through, among other actions: carefully targeted agricultural subsidies to encourage pulses production; “whole plant improvements” by breeders that also take into account the value of crop residue in livestock feeding; including pulses in commodity exchanges, especially at the local level; and ensuring that poor smallholder producers are not further marginalized “at a time when food systems and supply chains are increasingly intertwined.”

Finally, in related news, a FAO initiative is developing the FAO/INFOODS Global Food Composition Database for Pulses as one of the outcomes of IYP 2016. The database aims to promote increased production and consumption of pulses, while also opening up opportunities to address micronutrient deficiencies and incorporate pulses into nutrition and agriculture policies and guidelines.[FAO Press Release on IYP 2016 Seminar] [Global Soil Partnership Press Release on IYP 2016 Seminar] [ICARDA Press Release on ICP2016 – 18 April] [Global Pulse Confederation News Release on ICP2016] [IFAD Press Release on ICP2016] [ICARDA Pulses Blog] [ICP2016 Website] [IISD Story on Launch of IYP 2016]