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Beans Pulses

Gates Foundation Scientist: Pulses are a Game-Changer

Dr. Jeff Ehlers tells us why pulses are so great, and what actions the development community can take to harness the their power.

All About Pulses

Before the advent of synthetic fertilizers in the early 20th century, pulses were the principal source of agricultural nitrogen for farmers. Today, pulses are still one of the main dietary staples for approximately two billion of the world’s poor, yet they receive a fraction of the investment that maize and other cereals receive.

As a soil scientist, I have spent the last 10 years working at the intersection between agriculture and poverty in the developing world. It has never been clearer to me that beans and other pulses are some of the most important— and underappreciated— tools in the fight against global poverty.

With the United Nations declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses, our perception of pulses may be changing. I recently sat down with one of the leading global voices in the use of pulses to fight poverty, Dr. Jeff Ehlers of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to discuss why these plants are a potential game-changer, and what actions the development community can take to harness the power of pulses.

DG: You currently work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leading their work on legumes. What drove your decision to pursue a career working with pulses?

JE: Surprisingly, growing up as a suburban kid in California, my first passion was actually farming. This developed from summer visits to my uncle’s farm in southeast Minnesota. I went on to do my undergraduate work at the nearby University of California, Riverside, where I was exposed to breeding and genetics and worked with sorghum and potato breeding programs. I became hooked, and soon found myself in a PhD program at the University of California, Davis working on cowpea (a pulse crop) as part of a project with partners in Senegal. I basically fell in love with the cowpea and all its morphological diversity. As a breeder-agronomist in training, I was especially drawn to the challenge of how to harness the diversity of this unique crop and put it to good use, in the service of mankind.

DG: Many people may not know what a pulse or legume is. Can you provide a definition?

JE: Legumes are a major family of plants that includes trees (such as Acacia and Jacaranda) forages (such as alfalfa and clovers), but also peas and beans. All of these plants have the rare ability of forming a beneficial association with soil bacteria (rhizobium) on their roots.  These bacteria form nodules on the roots that are able to take inert nitrogen from the air (our air is 80% nitrogen) and convert it into a form plants can use for their growth.  Hence we say legumes are ‘N-fixers’ that contribute to the fertility of the soil to the benefit of crops grown in rotation with them.

Pulses are a type of legume where the seeds are used as human food, such as peas, lentils and beans. The seeds or grains are typically 2 to 3 times higher in protein (23-27%) than cereals such as maize and rice and have good levels of vitamins and minerals.

DG: The United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, to highlight the importance of pulses and legumes to achieving our Sustainable Development Goals. For the agriculture novices out there, what about legumes make them such an important tool in the fight to end global poverty?

JE: Legumes, and particularly the pulse subgroup, provide multiple benefits: they improve soil fertility, boost health and nutrition, and can provide stable income for smallholder farmers.

Possibly the most unique thing about the pulse crops is that they require little if any input of nitrogen fertilizers, due to their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. All legumes have the rare ability to form a beneficial association with soil bacteria on their roots, which boosts soil fertility. Additionally, the plants provide nitrogen to the next crop when they decompose in the soil. When grown in rotation with other crops, pulses help improve staple crop (e.g. rice/wheat/maize) yields by breaking soil-borne pest and disease cycles that afflict these crops. 

From an economic perspective, pulses diversify smallholder income streams and mitigate risks associated with staple crop price fluctuations. Over time, staple crop prices can be volatile, having multiple crops to sell helps bring income stability. When farmers grow pulses in addition to crops like maize, it helps buffer the farm from catastrophic disease and pest infestations and climate-related production disruptions.

From a nutritional and dietary diversity perspective, the leaves and immature pods of these crops can be consumed as high-value nutritious vegetables, and the grain is an important source of vitamins, minerals and protein for rural smallholder families.  Additionally, the non-grain portion of the plant provides an important component of livestock food that can dramatically boost livestock yields and health.

DG: The Gates Foundation’s global development objective is to “help the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” How do the foundation’s investments in pulses help to achieve this objective?

JE: I believe we as a society have a moral imperative to reduce the unacceptably high levels of childhood stunting that exist in Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, which hover at about 40 percent in both regions. Income growth and increased dietary diversity have been cited as the two most powerful levers to impact childhood stunting, and legumes can play a powerful role contributing to both. Women smallholders in particular stand to gain substantially from investments into legume productivity, production and profitability because in many farming communities in developing countries, women are often in charge of pulse growing.

Examples of the pulses the foundation invests in include cowpea, common bean and chickpea. Because pulses contain protein levels that are two to four times greater than cereal crops such as rice, maize and wheat, and much higher than low-protein roots and tuber crops (cassava, sweet potato, yam, bananas, etc.) they provide a nutritional punch not available in other staples.

DG: Can you highlight some of the foundation’s specific strategic investments in legumes and highlight the important outputs and positive social outcomes from these projects?

JE: We are investing primarily in three areas that help smallholders grow and store pulses more productively and profitably. The first area is our Tropical Legumes III project, where we are investing in breeding and genetic improvement to provide smallholders with varieties of cowpea, common bean, chickpea and groundnut that resist key diseases and pests. We are working with international agriculture research centers, the national agricultural research institutions of seven African countries, and the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. Our role at the foundation is really focused on enabling the adoption of modern genomic and digital tools, combined with operational and management ‘best practices’ that speed the delivery of these varieties. 

Through our N2Africa investment, we’re helping develop inoculants with strains of bacteria that fix more nitrogen than ones present naturally in the soil. Led by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, this work brings together researchers from nine African countries, all of which are focused on developing improved agronomic recommendations to help smallholders achieve higher pulse and legume yields. Part of this project also involves incubating the private sector delivery of these improved inoculants, so the research actually makes its way to farmers in their fields.

Our Purdue Improved Crops Storage (PICS) project is helping to get hermetic storage bags into the hands of hundreds of thousands of farmers using a sustainable public-private delivery model. PICS bags were developed by Purdue University professor Larry Murdock, as a way to reduce post-harvest losses of cowpea grain resulting from insect infestation. The numbers indicate that if 50 percent of cowpea grain at the farm level were put into airtight storage, overall annual income in the region would increase by $255 million USD. PICS technology also opens another economic opportunity — PICS bag production and distribution. PICS project staff are working with local manufacturers to produce PICS bags and with entrepreneurs to distribute them throughout West and Central Africa.

DG: One thing I find interesting is that hundreds of millions of US dollars are invested globally in agronomy and genetic improvement of maize, wheat, and rice, yet only a small fraction of this amount is allocated to legumes. Besides the International Year of Pulses, what do you think has to happen for more investment to flow towards legumes research?

JE: I think we have to advocate for more pulse research and policies that favor (or at least don’t discriminate against) increased pulse production. Historically, governments pretty much everywhere have favored staples by implementing policies and programs (such as subsidized crop insurance, market price supports, and fertilizer subsidies) that have not been offered to pulse producers. These types of policies have often caused pulses to be less profitable and relegated to more marginal lands. The low yields obtained in these circumstances only fuel the mistaken notion that pulse crops are inherently low- yielding.  In addition, because staple cereals have been receiving greater investments over the last several decades, we’ve seen small annual productivity gains from breeding in these crops that we have not seen in legumes, so now these cereals do in fact have higher levels of yield potential and pest and disease resistance. You can see how this puts pulses at a further disadvantage. More research dollars are needed to improve the productivity of these environmentally friendly nutritious crops to help them catch up.

DG: That’s a really good point, and it reminds me of something else I’ve been thinking about. Right now, most of the global research for legumes is dedicated to commercial soybean production, with less focus on cowpeas, pigeon peas, and other indigenous legumes species and traditional cropping systems. What steps can the global development community take to prioritize investments in these “alternative” legume species and cropping systems, which are more commonly grown in impoverished rural communities. 

JE: The grain legume and pulse community is small and fragmented across a number of warm and cool season crops, and across the developed and developing world, each with different perspectives and aims. The Year of Pulses presents an opportunity to bring this community together, so we can make a united case for more favorable treatment of pulses as a global nutrition and environmental opportunity.

There are also opportunities for organizations to coalesce around certain technical areas— solutions to disease threats are relevant to all of us. And in in some cases, it might be worthwhile to encourage food companies to develop products from some of these less common crops, in order to create space for initial production and aggregation at sufficient scale.

DG: What are the geographic, agronomic, or economic areas you believe the international development community should be focusing on to improve pulse and legume productivity?

JE: These crops are grown in a multitude of agro-ecologies and cropping systems, so more breeding and seed delivery is definitely needed to bring more productive varieties to more farmers. Also, in some areas with poor soil fertility, research is needed to overcome soil constraints, either through specialized fertilizers or genetics. At the same time, improved national commitment to multiplying and disseminating seed of the improved varieties is needed, and this will likely require a mix of both public and private investments. Because these legumes are self-replicating, farmers can save money in the short-term by saving their own seed. This is an advantage for farmers on the one hand, but also means the legume seed market size is several fold smaller than it would otherwise be and it is difficult for private seed producers to operate at cost-effective scales.

DG: You’ve now spent a career devoting yourself to promoting legumes. After all these years, what is one thing that still surprises or delights you about legumes?

JE: I do remain delighted by the possibility of helping pulse farmers grow more pulses with less cost and effort, especially by creating a more perfect pulse variety that resists drought, is nutritious and tastes great and resists all the pests and diseases that attack it. Another thing that still delights me is the beautiful array of seed colors, patterns, shapes and sizes that give us a clue to the diversity we can harness and share with the farmers who produce and consume these marvelous crops in multiple forms. 

I’ve been more of a researcher seeking solutions, but now I hope I am someone who can help bring the social, agro-ecological, and health benefits that come with increased legume availably in the developing world.

DG: 2016 is the International Year of Pulses. If it were up to you, what would you ask the UN to declare 2017 to be the year of?

JE: I think 2017 should be the International Year of Underexploited or Future Big Crops. I’m thinking of perennial grains, such as quinoa, hemp seed, bambarra groundnut, or fonio, to name just a few. Our food system is overly reliant on a few major food grains, and we are headed towards less diversity globally. At the same time, dietary and cropping system diversity are key elements of healthy diets and sustainable systems. Maybe it doesn’t have the same ring to it as Year of Pulses, but I think highlighting underexploited crops would be huge.

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