The Global Economy of Pulses: Impressive Gains and the Way Forward

By Boubaker Ben Belhassen and Vikas Rawal
ROME, Nov 14 2019 (IPS)

Pulses are highly nutritious and their consumption is associated
with many health benefits. They are rich in proteins and minerals,
high in fibre and have a low fat content. Pulses are produced by
plants of the Leguminosae family. These plants have root nodules
that absorb inert nitrogen from soil air and convert it into
biologically useful ammonia, a process referred to as biological
nitrogen fixation. Consequently, the pulse crops do not need any
additional nitrogen as fertilizer and help reduce the requirement
of fossil fuel-based chemical nitrogen fertilization for other
crops. Expansion of pulse production, therefore, can play a vital
role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Boubaker Ben Belhassen

Between 2001 and 2014, the global production of pulses increased by
over 20 million tonnes. This increase came about primarily on
account of an increase in the production of common beans,
chickpeas, cowpeas and lentils. Globally, between 2001 and 2014,
the annual production of dry beans increased by about 7 million
tonnes. In the same period, the annual production of chickpeas went
up by about 5 million tonnes, that of cowpeas by about 3.8 million
tonnes and that of lentils by about 1.6 million tonnes.

While pulses are produced in all regions of the world, South
Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together account for about half of
global production. Cultivation of dry bean, a category comprising
many different types of beans, is the most widespread across
different regions of the world. In 2012-14, sub- Saharan Africa
accounted for 24 percent of global production of dry beans, Latin
America and the Caribbean for about 24 percent, Southeast Asia for
about 18 percent, and South Asia for about 17 percent. South Asia
accounts for about 74 percent of chickpea production and 68 percent
of pigeonpea production. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 96 per
cent of the production of cowpea, a legume specific to arid
regions. North America is the biggest producer of lentils and dry

India is the biggest producer and consumer of pulses. Indian
demand for pulses is a major driver of the global economy of
pulses: India accounts for about 24 percent of global production of
pulses and 30 percent of global imports. In contrast with
stagnation of production of pulses from 1960s through 1990s, the
last 15 years have seen a doubling of production of pulses in
India. In 2017, India produced about 23 million tonnes of

Concerted efforts of agricultural scientists and breeders under
the aegis of CGIAR institutions and national agricultural research
systems (NARS) have played a critical role in facilitating the
growth of pulse production over the last fifteen years. Research on
pulses under CGIAR is led by ICRISAT, ICARDA and CIAT. Significant
work has been done by these institutions to conserve genetic
resources of pulse crops and also develop new cultivars. Currently,
ICRISAT holds 20 764 accessions of chickpeas and 13 783 accessions
of pigeonpeas, ICARDA has 11 877 accessions of lentils and CIAT
holds 37 938 accessions of Phaseolus beans. In addition, many
national gene banks hold substantial repositories of genetic
resources. For example, national gene banks in India have over 63
000 accessions of different pulse crops. The International Treaty
on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted by the
31st Session of the Conference of FAO in 2001, has provided the
institutional framework for international collaboration in using
these genetic resources. These genetic resources have been used to
develop short-duration and disease-resistant varieties, and
varieties that can be grown in diverse climatic conditions across
the world.

Vikas Rawal

With the increase in globalization and trade liberalization across
the world, the last two decades have seen a particularly large
increase in international trade of pulses. Between 2001 and 2013,
the quantity of pulses exported went up from about 9 million tonnes
to about 14 million tonnes. There has been a considerable increase
in Asia’s dependence on imports of pulses, primarily on account
of an increasing shortfall in domestic supply in India and
China’s transformation from being a net exporter of pulses to
being a net importer. On the other hand, Canada, Australia and
Myanmar have emerged as major exporters of pulses. High prices of
pulses in the past decade have made farming of pulses attractive in
these countries.

Experience of many countries over the last two decades shows
that considerable improvement in the yields of pulses can be
achieved with greater adoption of improved varieties and scientific
agronomic practices. Large, industrial-scale farms in developed
countries like Canada and Australia benefit from economies of
scale, particularly in the deployment of machines, and higher use
of improved varieties of seeds, inoculants and plant protection
chemicals. On the other hand, pulse production on smallholder farms
in most countries continues to be characterized by low yields and
high risk. Given the low and uncertain returns from pulses, most of
the smallholder production takes place on marginal soils, on land
without irrigation facilities and with little access to
technological improvements. Smallholder producers of pulses in
developing countries lack access to improved varieties of seeds,
knowledge about appropriate agronomic practices, and resources for
buying modern inputs. Consequently, yield gaps on smallholder farms
are high. In countries marked by smallholder production, pulse
crops remain unremunerative compared with other competing crops.
Low levels of per hectare margins act as a double disadvantage for
smallholder producers of pulses: given the small sizes of their
farms, low per hectare margins result in abysmal levels of per
worker and per farm incomes.

The growth of pulse production over the last decade-and-a-half
has been a result of concerted public action towards developing
improved varieties and identifying suitable agronomic varieties, to
make cultivation of pulses attractive for farmers under diverse
agro-climatic conditions and economic contexts across the world.
Increasing support to smallholder pulse production in the form of
public extension services, provision of improved technologies and
inputs, and availability of credit and insurance facilities can go
a long way towards closing yield gaps on smallholder farms and
making production of pulses more remunerative. The key lies in
simultaneously ensuring that production of pulses is remunerative
for smallholder producers and prices of pulses are affordable for

Boubaker Ben Belhassen is Director, Trade and
Markets Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations (FAO) and Vikas Rawal is Professor,
Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Trade and Markets Division of FAO
recently released a report titled The Global Economy of Pulses that
can be accessed here:

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The Global Economy of Pulses: Impressive Gains and the Way
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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
The Global Economy of Pulses: Impressive Gains and the Way Forward