Africa: Taking Pulses to a Higher Level

In celebration of World Pulses Day (10 February), read on to learn about the value and benefits of pulses–or legumes–to human health, and how consuming them can help achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

What are pulses?

Pulses are the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food. Dried beans, lentils and peas are most commonly known and consumed. They do not include crops that are harvested green–think green peas or green beans–or crops used mainly for oil extraction–such as soybean and groundnuts–or leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes as is the case of seeds of clover and alfalfa.

Pulses are highly nutritious. Low in fat and rich in soluble fibre, they can lower cholesterol and help control blood sugar. Because of these qualities they are recommended by health organizations for the management of diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. Pulses have also been shown to help combat obesity.

Food security boosters

For farmers, pulses are an important crop because they can both sell them and consume them, which helps farming families maintain food security. Legumes also help with economic stability–when dried they can be stored for a long time. They also help to increase the diversity of diets, especially in developing countries.

“Local and national food systems need to be strengthened to adapt to the climate crisis and become better equipped to provide diverse diets for consumers in food-insecure communities,” says James Lomax, a food systems expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“Pulses are very much part of the picture. Increased diversity on the farm, including pulses’ diversity, helps farmers diversify their risk, provide markets for food crops, break their dependency on commodity crops, and increase biodiversity and resilience.”

Plants with environmental and climate benefits

The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses improve soil fertility, which increases and extends the productivity of the farmland. By using pulses for intercropping and cover crops, farmers can also promote farm and soil biodiversity, while keeping harmful pests and diseases at bay.

“One of the advantages of biological nitrogen fixation is that it provides a natural slow-release form of crop nitrogen supply that matches crop needs,” says Mahesh Pradhan, a nitrogen expert with UNEP.

“In this way, the fraction that is wasted as pollution is expected to be much smaller. There are still concerns, however, when ploughing in a legume to benefit a later crop, as this may give a temporary peak of nitrogen pollution losses.”

Pulses can also contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing dependence on the synthetic fertilizers used to introduce nitrogen artificially into the soil. Greenhouse gases are released during the manufacturing and application of these fertilizers, and their overuse can be detrimental to the environment.

Pulses are part of the planet’s rich variety of food sources and biodiversity.

“Pulses are part of agricultural biological diversity that is integrally linked with tackling climate change and is critical for realizing the Sustainable Development Goals,” says UNEP ecosystems expert Marieta Sakalian. “A diverse and healthy planet is the foundation of human well-being, security and sustainable development.”

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Written by Goodness E.

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