Pulses are a very important crop for India. They are an important source of protein, grow quickly, generate good profits for farmers, and contribute to agricultural and environmental sustainability.
It was wise that the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has declared 2016 as the “International Year of Pulses.” The more farmers produce these crops and the more consumers eat them, the better off we’ll all be. This is true everywhere, though it’s especially true for my country of India, where the demand for pulses is higher than the supply—and the challenge of meeting the demand through smarter farming and better technology is an essential part of national food security.
“Pulse” is an agricultural term, familiar to farmers but less so to others. In India we grow many different kinds of pulses such as black gram, green gram, chickpeas, kidney beans, lima beans, and black-eyed peas etc. On my farm, I grow black gram and green gram, known popularly in India as urd and moong, respectively. They are the major source of protein in our country and important ingredients in many traditional dishes.
Pulses belong to the legume family, which includes plants whose fruit grows in a pod, such as peanuts, soybeans, and green peas. Yet none of those foods are pulses. The term “pulse” refers strictly to dried seeds.
On my farm in Tamil Nadu, a state at the southeastern tip of India, I grow rice, sugarcane, cotton, and pulses on 60 acres—a small amount of land by the standards of North and South America, but a size that makes me one of the bigger farmers in my region, where most farmers hold less than three acres.
One of the best things about pulses is a feature that farmers see but consumers don’t: availability of water is the crucial factor influencing the choice of crops we grow. Pulses need much less water than other crop choices besides putting nitrogen back into the ground through its root nodules. These traits reduce stress on natural resources and replenish the soil, which is good for the environment. When used in rotation, pulses also have the power to boost the yields of my other crops. They can be an important factor in India’s agricultural environmental and economic sustainability
Pulses are a staple source of protein and fiber for Indians – the majority who are vegetarian. They’re even low in fat. These are truly some of the best crops in the world.
The challenge is that we don’t grow enough pulses here in India. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that our diets should contain 80 grams of pulse every day. In 1960, we produced more than 65 grams of pulses per person per day. Today, the figure is 31 grams—a decline of more than 50 percent. That means our pulse consumption is falling short by 60% from the WHO recommendation for our diet.
Much of this is due to population growth: We’re currently on track to overtake China as the most populated country in the world.
To meet India’s rising demand for pulses, we’ve had to rely on imports: 4.4 million metric tons last year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, and probably more this year.
From my three decades of farming experience in different field crops, pulses get me the maximum profit in minimum duration and need less water. My fond wish is that India become self-sufficient in pulse production, making healthy food available for all and increasing India’s food security.
This crop has the potential to enhance the income of our smallholder farmers, many resource poor, who constitute the majority of India’s farming population. But we confront major challenges to get the best price in the market and fight pests that inflict substantial damage to the pulse crop.
It is encouraging that my farmer colleagues in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, with the support of their respective state governments and private players are able to realize the best price for their produce and at the same time, consumers are getting the best product. In my own state of Tamil Nadu, our state government is supporting an initiative to motivate farmers to take up pulse crops to create a win-win solution for the farmers and consumers.
To make the most of our potential—to grow the most food on the least land—we must also do a better job of fighting pod-borers, the insect larvae that attack our crops. Unfortunately, spraying chemicals to fight these pests is not effective.
We need a technological solution of the sort that revolutionized our cotton industry, when we moved from the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution and benefitted from advances in biotechnology. Genetically modified cotton helped us defeat the boll worm and the same technology can help us enhance the yield of pulse.
If we were to develop GM pulses, I am positive our productivity would boom. We wouldn’t have to rely on imports nearly as much, if at all. Most important, we’d create a domestic source of a food that fights malnutrition each time a child takes a bite from a meal that includes pulses among its ingredients.
GM pulses do not pose a major scientific challenge. Our brightest minds can innovate. Instead, we face a political problem: We must have the will to overcome the ideological objections of foreign activists and people who don’t struggle with hunger. Our Prime Minister, Shri. Narendra Modi, has set a goal to double the income of India’s farmers by 2022. We can realize this goal much earlier by adopting new technologies in pulse cultivation and the active participation of government, farmers and private players together.
Let’s start the field trials as soon as possible—and make every year the International Year of Pulses.