Pulses are usually grown as secondary components of cereal-dominated cropping systems. Consequently, but understandably, pulses receive less research attention than the cereals they share land with. This is despite pulses generally being exposed to a plethora of biotic and abiotic stresses. Further, their cultivation must adjust to the primary requirements of the cereal crop, as well as other components of the farming system (e.g. animal husbandry), often displacing pulses from their optimum growing environment. Nevertheless, there is a considerable bank of component knowledge on how to maximize pulse productivity, but not enough of this knowledge is translated to farmers, especially resource-poor ones.
Improvement in pulse production necessarily requires a holistic approach, not only to tackle the multiple stresses directly affecting the crop but also to integrate external factors ultimately affecting production, like competition with other crops, input availability and market opportunities. These factors can interact in ways ranging from synergism to antagonism. For example, application of a limiting nutrient may induce better root growth that would enhance soil water extraction, but the resultant improved vegetative growth may attract pests and diseases. Thus an integrated crop management (ICM) approach is required, which the National Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich, UK, usefully defines as “a system of crop production which conserves and enhances natural resources while producing food on an economically viable and sustainable foundation”. This necessitates “a good understanding of the interactions between biology, environment and land management systems” and “is particularly appropriate for small farmers because it aims to minimize dependence on expensive inputs and to make the fullest possible use of indigenous technical knowledge and land use practices”.
Human population growth—and the subsequent increased demand for food and declining area of agricultural land which is often degrading in soil health—puts even more pressure on pulses. There is ever-growing pressure to increase the production of staple cereal crops thereby further threatening the area that can be allocated to pulses. Another factor of growing importance is climate change, which modifies local plant growth conditions, disrupts traditional cropping patterns and increases the riskiness of cropping. This presents further constraints but also some opportunities for pulses.
A top-down approach to disseminating the potential solutions for increasing pulse cultivation and yields has had limited success, especially for resource-poor farmers in rainfed environments. Therefore, a more enhanced farmer-participatory approach than has so far been implemented is advocated. An understanding of yield gaps, the difference between the yields realized by farmers and the potential yield under “ideal” cultural conditions, is necessary to assess the scope for improving on-farm yields. The potential yield of rainfed crops is usually limited by sub-optimal soil moisture, mostly deficit but sometimes excess, at some time during the growing period. Therefore, knowledge of soil water content through the growing season is crucial as this sets the yield ceiling for that season. It is therefore evident that potential rainfed yield is a year-to-year moving target, depending on pre-season and growing season rainfall. An important aspect of the on-farm approach to agronomic improvement is to focus on feasible solutions within the resource limitations of the farmer. This requires the inclusion of farmers throughout the experimental process. The testing of identified solutions requires comparison with controls on multiple farmers’ fields, under farmer management but with researcher guidance in layout and data collection. There are existing and evolving ways of statistically analysing these types of multi-location trials, to provide more information about the usefulness of an improved technology than could be obtained from traditional, multi-replicate randomized block trials at a few locations. The involvement of farmers in all stages of the process creates a sense of their ownership of any improvements identified and therefore increases the likelihood of widespread adoption.
Much more needs to be done in moving from an on-station to an on-farm focus for pulse production technology research. This could be best achieved under the framework of Farmer Research Networks. These would be, essentially, groupings of farmers and researchers using emerging developments in ICT to scale up on-farm participatory practices that have so far evolved. This would facilitate more widespread collection of data at the farm level, including that from iterative on-farm trials, its more rigorous analysis and interpretation, and effective communication of outcomes back to farmers. It would permit more rigorous analysis of ‘option x context’ interactions, which ultimately determine whether or not a new technology is adopted. ‘Option’ refers to features such as technological innovation and resource requirements and ‘context’ to biophysical conditions, farming system and social, policy and market aspects.
Implementation of the above approach proposed by would require a massive reorientation of current agricultural R, D & E focus for resource-poor agriculture. This is now still biased towards replication of simple, comprehensive recommendations rather than confronting the realities of local adaptation in diverse environments and investigating this complexity. Roles of agricultural researchers and agronomists in particular would need to change, from being assessed primarily according to their academic publication record to their contribution to effective outcomes for farmer groups. Funding amounts and project lengths would need to be increased to permit adequate baseline characterization, multi-location and multi-year on-farm trials and built-in outcome and impact analysis. More enduring partnerships need to be established between national and international research bodies, non-government organizations, community-based organizations and commercial entities interacting with farmers. Only then can we expect that smallholder farmers will practically implement the extensive knowledge we have so far to increase the production of pulses.