Light shines bright on nutrient-rich crop during 2016 Year of the Pulses

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“Pulses have been an essential part of the human diet for centuries, yet their nutritional value is not generally recognized and is frequently underappreciated.”

With these words, director-general of the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) José Graziano da Silva officially ushered in the 2016 International Year of Pulses (IYP). As part of the UN’s effort to promote sustainable food production and increased food security and nutrition around the planet, IYP is meant to highlight the importance of pulse crops.

Pulses are a subgroup of legumes that produce edible seeds that are harvested for dry grain. These include such regular denizens of the Western diet as kidney beans, navy beans, chickpeas and many lentils. All told, hundreds of varieties of pulses are grown worldwide.

Traces of pulse production dating back to 3300 B.C. have been discovered around the Ravi River in the Punjab region of modern-day India and Pakistan, the seat of the Indus Valley civilization, one of the earliest human societies. Evidence of pulse consumption has also been found in Egyptian pyramids and in Swiss villages dating back to the Stone Age. Despite their historic ubiquity, pulses are often described by the research community as one of the most – if not the most – undervalued family of crops.

The extensive history of pulses within cultures can be attributed to their numerous nutritional and agricultural benefits. High in protein, fiber, iron, zinc, phosphorus and other nutrients, pulses are a complement to cereal crops such as rice, wheat and corn. They are particularly critical for populations that cannot afford to rely heavily on animal food sources for protein.

Legumes also fix nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the farmer’s reliance on fertilizer inputs when they are used in crop rotation. Their added biomass as a cover crop improves soil organic matter, which helps retain water and nutrients under drought conditions. They also require less water than many other crops, so they are more drought-resistant.

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) are praising the UN’s declaration of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses for shedding light on the often overlooked and underloved crops.

James Kells, chairperson of the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, said the UN declaration is certainly warranted because of the crops’ nutritional value, especially in developing countries.

“They are agronomically and nutritionally important in the United States and globally, and bringing the attention of the world community to them can only help increase awareness of that fact,” he said.

This sentiment is the driving force behind the IYP. Despite healthful benefits, pulse production has experienced a decline in recent years as agricultural economies have turned more and more toward cereal grains.

Sieglinde Snapp, professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, said it’s important to draw attention to pulses, especially now.

“There’s been a slight decline in pulse consumption almost everywhere in the world except South Asia because of the promotion of cereals, which receive the bulk of government attention and research funding,” she said. “We need investment in pulses — they haven’t received the attention they deserve in years.”

The IYP declaration has reaffirmed MSU’s commitment to continue pulse research aimed at delivering better, healthier cultivars to areas of the world needing them the most.

William “Vance” Baird, professor and chairperson of the MSU Department of Horticulture, said the IYP helps to justify the efforts behind legume research.

“To see the crop group recognized on this stage validates the continuation of those efforts beyond the local, regional or even national level to a worldwide focus,” he said.                   

“To see the positive impacts that pulses have for the human population recognized and featured so prominently provides the opportunity to continue the growth and development of still better crops and practices.”

Pulses have been an important segment of agriculture in Michigan since they were introduced in the 1880s. The state, which is home to a quarter of a million acres of edible dry beans, ranks second only to North Dakota in production. The 12 classes of edible dry beans grown by Michigan farmers annually contribute $150 million to the state’s economy, according to the Michigan Bean Commission.

Recognizing the economic and nutritional significance of beans, MSU has taken a leading role in pulse research that has implications worldwide.

“Since pulses are important to the world and to Michigan, they are important to MSU,” Kells says. “We have leading genetics and breeding programs in our department that are important to growers and to the industry at large.”

“Some of the bean research we do at MSU is second to none,” Snapp adds. “In my own work, I see pulses as an essential part of a greener revolution in Africa.

In the east African nations of Malawi and Tanzania, where much of Snapp’s work is concentrated, chemical fertilizer is two and 10 times as expensive as in Michigan, respectively, and supplies are extremely limited. Consequently, the ability of pulses to fix soil nitrogen in these regions is critical. Because of poor soil health and drought, these countries stand to reap many benefits from the production of pulses. Bringing improved pulse cultivars to the region is an important step to increase food security and improve health and nutrition.

“If we can get more legumes in the region, that will mean more fodder for livestock, more biomass to protect the soil and more high-quality grain for family nutrition,” Snapp said. “We need all of these things to get better returns on the cash crops such as corn or sorghum. They really benefit from the diversity that pulses provide.”

Baird said MSU is well-poised to develop sustainable ways to increase yields, improve stress tolerance, boost nutritional value and advance postharvest processing.

“I think MSU’s strength in plant sciences – its combination of expertise in cutting-edge plant science and breeding – is crucial as we move forward with crop improvements that allow producers to grow pulses more efficiently,” Baird said.

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