World leaders convene in Zambia to talk pulse improvements

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Global leaders gathered in Livingstone, Zambia to discuss the importance of pulse crops (view larger image)

“We must put the hand hoe where it belongs – in the museum – because it does not have a place in agriculture today. The African woman, the African youth cannot continue to till the land with such back-breaking, inefficient and archaic tools.”

These words were delivered by Zambian Minister of Agriculture Given Lubinda as part of his opening remarks for the 2016 Joint Pan-African Grain Legume and Cowpea Conference in Livingstone, Zambia. More than 520 registered participants from 46 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the United States and India gathered to discuss ways to boost productivity, intensify cropping systems, improve human nutrition and develop value chains of grain legumes.

Sub-Saharan Africa was chosen as the site of the conference because of its traditionally poor bean production. Pests and diseases, low soil fertility, poor agronomic practices and climate change, along with increased populations, have prevented beans from reaching their full potential in this region of the world where hunger, poverty and malnutrition are daily challenges.

In his speech, Lubinda talked about the growing world population and the subsequent need to increase the global food supply by 70 percent by 2050. He said he is particularly concerned over the lack of agricultural technology in his homeland and the deterrence it poses to future generations of farmers. 

“The youths are leading smart lives,” he said. “The youths will only be involved in smart agriculture, and unless we take the hand hoe away, I’m afraid the population of farmers will perish.”

In addition to the lack of modern agricultural tools, African agriculture is stymied by poor access to high-yielding, drought-resistant legume seed and market chain supply, and opposition to crop diversity. Most farming is done on a small-scale basis, primarily by women, some whom bear children who suffer stunted growth due to poor diets and lack of proper nutrition.

In an effort to help find solutions to these challenges, the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab (LIL) – housed at and administered through Michigan State University (MSU) – took a leadership role in organizing the conference. Other partners included the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) and the Zambia Ministry of Agriculture.

It was the sole signature international event in Africa to celebrate the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization proclamation of the 2016 International Year of Pulses (IYP). The designation highlights the importance of edible grain legumes to improving the livelihoods of rural farmers, especially women; human health and nutrition; and the sustainability of agricultural systems worldwide.

The MSU delegation of 22 faculty and staff members was led by Douglas Buhler, MSU assistant vice president of research and graduate studies, and Irvin Widders and Cynthia Donovan, director and deputy director of LIL, respectively.                     

In his remarks, Buhler – the lone academic institution representative on the conference panel of honored dignitaries – said he is sometimes questioned in the United States about the importance of conducting international research.

“I will often be asked and challenged by some of our investment partners as to why we have people in our departments and investments in faculty in other parts of the world when we have plenty of problems and things to do at home,”
he said.

“The simple answer to that is we gain more from our partnerships than our partners do. I would also add that, with agriculture and food being such a global industry, it’s actually an important element for our faculty and our students to be internationally engaged, and this is one way to do that.”

Jeff Ehlers, program officer with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – another conference co-sponsor – said the importance of research on such topics as crop breeding and integrated pest management through institutions such as MSU is critical because of the low costs and low risks involved.

“Most of us realize that the small farmers in Africa are getting two to three times lower production rates than what can be done on research station sites,” Ehlers said. “That is generally due to what I would call under-management – lack of use of improved seeds, poor varieties and suboptimal use of agronomic practices.” 

Robynne Anderson, founder of Emerging Ag Inc., said she is working with the Global Pulse Confederation (GPC) to help lead the pulse industry to major crop status by facilitating free and fair trade and increasing production and consumption of pulses worldwide. She said that as of the end of February, GPC had hosted pulse events in 36 countries and engaged 200 million people on Twitter (#ilovepulses, #IYP2016).

In addition to raising awareness, GPC is working to improve food security and nutrition by encouraging students to pursue technology and new uses of pulses while advocating for additional research. Compared with other crops such as maize, legumes lag far behind in external funding support, Anderson said.

“There is currently a $177 million investment in research for the 13 crops considered pulses,” Anderson said. “This means we would need a tenfold increase to reach the $1 billion investment in research for corn alone.”

Conference keynote speaker Yemi Akinbamijo, executive director of the Forum for Agriculture Research in Africa, said there may never be a greater time to speak about grain legumes because of their significant impacts on food security, income security, nutritional security and feed security. He said that climate change and the need for sustainable farming practices are adding more pressure to find solutions to feed the growing world population.

“Grain legumes are often referred to as the ‘poor people’s meat,’” Akinbamijo said. “They’re extremely important to those who cannot afford meat, milk or fish to meet their protein needs.”

The conference presentations focused on all facets of grain legume production, from genetics to seed selection and from nutritional benefits to workforce gender issues. In addition, some 60 scholarships were awarded to African scientists and graduate students to attend and present papers.

In finishing his opening remarks, Lubinda urged conference attendees to support efforts to advance “smart agriculture in Africa” through commercialization and modern-day mechanization.

“In this paradigm [in Africa], agriculture continues to support the much needed jobs for our youths and the much needed incomes for our women,” Lubinda said.

David Bergvinson, director general of the International Crop Research Institute for Tropical Agriculture, emphasized the need not to lose sight of the smallholder farmer. He added that continued partnerships are necessary to transform food systems and address poverty and hunger. 

“More and more governments, whether in India or Zambia, are recognizing the role of pulses,” Bergvinson said. “If we stay focused on the farm, we will have a much better story to tell in 2020.”

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