In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, farmers have given up on one of their staple crops. “Once our village was a major producer of faba bean,” says farmer Yeshewalul Tilaye, from the Chichet village of Tarma Ber, “but we lost hope.”
Disease and natural resource degradation have plagued the Amhara region, which has a 90 percent poverty rate and is particularly susceptible to both drought and heavy rainfall.
Before the Ethiopian civil war broke out in the 1970s, pulses – the family to which faba beans belong – were the nation’s second biggest export crop.
Since then, production has decreased dramatically, partly due to recurrent droughts, prevailing diseases and a lack of investment in research to address these production constraints.
Global fight for food security
Abandonment of these key crops now should not be an option, as pulses are going to be crucial to our global fight for food security, particularly in the face of climate change. Why?
In a world where 792 million people are malnourished, pulses – the edible seeds of plants in the legume family such as beans, peas, chickpea and lentils – offer extraordinary nutritional value. Although lentils and chickpeas are among the cheapest protein-rich foods to buy, they are also high in iron and zinc, while being low in fat.
They are also among the most environmentally friendly crops we can grow. They require very little water compared with rice and wheat, and consume up to 20 times less water than animals raised for meat.
Given that global water demand is likely to increase more than 40 percent by 2030, less water-intensive food solutions are going to be vital.
Pulse crops also have the special ability to absorb nitrogen from the air, and fix it to the soil through their roots. Since nitrogen is essential for healthy plant growth, pulses are nourishing themselves as well as the soil in which other crops grow.
Without faba beans – one of the most effective “nitrogen fixers” – to perform this function on their farms, Yeshewalul and his neighbours were forced to leave their land fallow in order to maintain soil fertility for barley production.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where up to 65 percent of land is degraded, poor soil fertility is one of the biggest obstacles to tackling hunger. Planting pulses can help African farmers address this issue head on.
The case for upping our production and consumption of pulses is clear. So how can this be done in the face of current challenges?
Investing in pulse crop research
We cannot ask the food industry to make better use of pulses, unless we can ensure their reliable supply.
Just as Yeshewalul has experienced in Ethiopia, a raft of challenges, from drought to disease, are affecting pulse production. We therefore need to prioritise research into boosting production of this most sustainable crop.
A new, disease-resistant variety of faba bean has been released by Ethiopian and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) scientists, that is helping Yeshewalul and his fellow farmers see good bean harvests once more.
Further afield in West Bengal and Bangladesh, new lentil varieties have been released that mature so quickly, they can be grown between two rice-growing seasons.
This will make 11 million rice-growing hectares even more productive, and could reduce South Asia’s dependence on foreign imports for this key crop and boost prosperity in the region.
Investing in pulse product diversity
Once a sustainable supply of pulses is in place, we can move to investing in better product diversity. Currently, the selection of processed, ready-made and convenience foods that contain pulses is minimal. Pulses are most commonly eaten as ingredients in home cooking.
If we are to catalyse the production and consumption of pulses, for the good of our planet and future food supplies, we need to offer the consumer more exciting ways to eat them. It’s time to look beyond bean stew and lentil dahl.
A new group of food technologists has taken on this challenge. As part of the United Nations’ International Year of Pulses, the Global Pulse Confederation organised a search for the most exciting and innovative new ways to eat pulses through a global competition: the LovePulses Product Showcase.
One innovator from Swaziland was awarded for her sweet bean jam, which is locally sourced and highly nutritious. Another competitor from Morocco fortified durum wheat with broad beans, chickpeas and lentils, which will add fibre and protein to the bread and couscous it produces.
Students from Canada have even come up with a dairy free frozen dessert made from fermented bean milk. These innovations have just been featured at the International Food Technologists Expo, the largest of its kind in the world, in Chicago.
The resources we have to feed the billions living on our planet are finite. Only with smart use of these resources is our growing population going to be able to overcome challenges such as climate change and water scarcity to achieve food and nutrition security.
Pulses may be a small part of the puzzle now, but with the right investment, they can be mighty.
Mahmoud Solh is the Director General at the International Center for Agricultural Research for Dry Areas (ICARDA).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.