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Pulses: Tiny Grains with Huge Value — 2016 International Year of Pulses

The United Nations declared 2016 to be the International Year of Pulses (IYP)*, which celebrates the benefits of pulses, in order to raise public awareness and will sponsor various activities for the improvement of relevant research, increase in production and trade, and address pulse-related issues. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) facilitates the implementation of the IYP in collaboration with governments, relevant organizations, non-government organizations, and other stakeholders.

various pulsesThe goals of the International Year of Pulses are:
・Promote the value and utilization of pulses throughout human food systems.
・Raise awareness of the benefits of pulses, including sustainable agriculture and nutrition.
・Encourage connections to further global production.
・Foster enhanced research.
・Advocate for better utilization of pulses in crop rotations.
・Address challenges in the trade of pulses.

© Japanest NIPPON

Why Pulses?

Legumes (Fabaceae), including pulses, are among the most predominate in the plant kingdom with approximately 19,000 species. They are the third most populous plant family after the sunflower family (Asteraceae) of approximately 23,000 species and the orchid family (Orchidaceae) of approximately 22,000 species. We may see it is merely pulses, but yet one of the most abundant plants. How much could such pulses affect the global environment? No one has precisely determined the full roles that pulses play in the Earth’s ecosystems. Many legumes are associated with a bacteria known as rhizobia, hosting them in their roots. Rhizobia are able to take nitrogen gas (N2) from the air and convert it into a form of nitrogen such as ammonia (NH3) or nitrate (NO3−). This nitrogen is fixed in the soil and is beneficial for plant growth. In other words, the soil is fertilized naturally. This fact also leads us to consider that legumes likely played an important role throughout the long history of the formation of the global environment, including the environment in which we now live.

Humans have also benefitted from the cultivation of pulses. For the last 7,000 to 8,000 years, pulses have been one of the principal foods for humans. Some researchers suggest that this plant might have been grown by humans even earlier. Pulses are not only a healthy and nutritious crop; pulses also grow relatively better even in barren soil and are less destructive to the soil than other plants. As a crop, they are sustainable, which is of particular relevance to contemporary conservation issues, as pulses use water resources more efficiently.

With their nutritional benefits, long shelf life, species diversity and importance to human food cultures, the value of pulses globally will likely only continue to grow.

Five Important Facts About Pulses

Pulses are rich in nutrition. They include an abundance of protein and fiber. Pulses have nitrogen-fixing properties and improve soil fertility by the activity of rhizobia, a kind of bacteria living symbiotically with pulses. Pulse species have genetic diversity that renders them adaptable to varying climates for cultivation. Pulses are a sustainable product due to efficient water consumption and low carbon emission, as compared with other food protein products. Pulses can be stored for months without losing their nutritional value.

Pulses in Science

As we see, by contributing to a rich soil environment, pulses have been essential in sustaining a healthy ecology. They also have been a fundamental source of sustenance for humans as one of the primary cultivated crops from prehistoric times. These facts suggest that even now pulses may be critical for humans to solve current environmental, food, and agricultural problems we are now facing. Many researchers who study legumes have such expectations. About 150 years ago, an Austrian friar, Gregor Mendel, cultivated and experimented with some 29,000 pea plants, discovering in the process the laws of inheritance termed Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. He is now known as the father of modern genetics. This might be one of the first examples of how pulses contributed to the current body of knowledge in modern science and technology.

The major focus of pulse research includes the clarification of nitrogen-fixing mechanisms or the identification of relevant genes. To elucidate the symbiosis system between rhizobia and legume plants and efficient mechanism of nitrogen fixation, we should apply the outcomes of research to selective breeding or improved soil making.
In general, farmers need to utilize chemical fertilizer to produce savory crops with reasonably large yields. However, chemical fertilizer puts significant stresses on the environment, thus leaving a large “footprint” as such environmental stressors are called. Pulse research is expected to contribute to new methods of breeding functional green manure or crops for ley farming or crop rotation, all of which are environmentally friendly. When introduced as a primary crop, the efficiency of pulse cultivation will also contribute economically to societies where barren soil impedes the growth of crops. Furthermore, research interest in pulses also includes the breeding of a new rhizobia strain that reduces N2O, a cause of the “greenhouse effect,” as well as the transfer of nitrogen-fixing capabilities to non-legumes such as rice or wheat.

Science helps food crisis in Africa — breeding a new cowpea and fostering agricultural community

Cowpea originated in northern Africa and is valued as an important food crop there, particularly in western Africa. People there regard cowpea as a primary protein source and also primary food on par in importance with wheat or rice. However, cowpea is not a major food outside of Africa, and thus, is rarely focused on as a subject of research or aid.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has carried on the breeding and introduction of new cowpea strains that are expected to achieve high yields, aiming for the increase in production and securing of a stable supply in Africa. From 2010 to 2013, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries implemented the Appropriate Varieties of Early-maturing Cowpea for Burkina Faso (AVEC-BF) project as one of their funding projects. The Japanese team led the breeding of two new varieties and introduced them to local farms with the cooperation of local researchers and farmers. They won the top award in Burkina Faso’s national exhibition competition “De la foire régionale Agro-Sylvo-Pastorale et Artisanale du CENTRE- OUEST” (literally The Regional Fair of Agroforestry-Pastoral and Craft of West-Central) in 2011 for their contribution to local farms. Since 2013, the Japanese government has been providing an official development assistance (ODA) funding program for the IITA and cowpea research has been proceeding.   

*The United Nations establishes a particular year as an “International Year” of an issue that is of global concern and that requires global cooperation in solving, accepting proposals for the year’s theme by nation or international organization. The aims of the “International Year” are to facilitate international interest and understanding and to promote cooperation in the development and improvement of society and human life.
In 2013, one of the international organizations of pulses, Confederation Internationale du Commerce et des Industries des Legumes Secs (CICILS), proposed an “International Year of Pulses” at the 68th United Nations General Assembly, and the United Nations decided to declare 2016 the International Year of Pulses.