An Englishman in New York for the International Year of Pulses 2016

Image courtesy of Anthony Quintano under a Creative Commons Public Licence

This blog post was written by Milan Shah and originally published on LinkedIn.

Was Ban Ki-moon looking for a spare seat as he repeatedly traversed our dining area on the 4th floor of the United Nations Headquarters? Of course, he had an open invitation to join our peas, beans and lentils themed lunch in celebratory anticipation of the forthcoming International Year of Pulses 2016, which the UN General Assembly had declared back in December 2013. But why such a formal designation to promote this ancient and humble set of crops? As the Secretary General had stated just the previous week, the world should eat more pulses:

“Pulse crops, such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas, are a vital source of plant-based proteins and amino acids. Despite strong evidence of the health and nutritional benefits of pulses, the consumption of pulses remains low in many developing and developed countries.”

The mandate to facilitate the year sits with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, and it offers an opportunity to watch the specialised agency in action on two fronts: the Sustainable Development Goals and strategic alliances.

Sustainable Development Goals

Goal setting can help get things done and the Millennium Development Goals had offered a framework for focusing on the challenges faced by the poorest in our world. However, the expert led process that delivered these targets also sowed the seeds of lingering suspicions of the North prescribing to the South, rich countries monitoring poorer ones. This time, the Sustainable Development Goals emerged through a more widespread bottom up approach of stakeholder engagement (including 193 governments and over 7m online responses), which might explain why there are 17 of them with 169 associated targets.

The FAO now finds itself attempting to monitor and meet approximately thirty targets across around two hundred countries. The International Year of Pulses 2016 offers an early opportunity within the SDG time horizon for the FAO to demonstrate tangible progress on a range of these objectives. Pulses will make a real difference in so many ways, as Ban Ki-moon noted:

“Pulses can contribute significantly in addressing hunger, food security, malnutrition, environmental challenges and human health.”

Strategic Alliances

With a $2.4 billion budget for the current 2014-15 biennium, of which only $1 billion is core funding from assessed contributions, the FAO is learning to manage its activities (and offices in 130 countries) smartly. But the value for money imperative has not dented the ambition of Director General José Graziano Da Silva, who seems to be rising to the ever urgent challenge of ending global hunger:

"Better is good, but when it comes to hunger, better is not good enough. There are 795 million reasons why."

This attitude chimes with the transition from halving hunger by 2015 (MDG 1 Target 3) to zero hunger by 2030 (SDG2 Target 1). But the FAO’s resources alone will not deliver that objective. By some estimates $267 billion per year until 2030 is required to meet this goal. Whilst the Director General puts this in context as the equivalent of a new $150 mobile phone every year for each of the world’s poor, his logic model is crystal clear that the majority of intended outcomes rely on those outside the FAO and its immediate circle. The status of the Office of Partnerships is being elevated in recognition. Collaboration beyond national governments and other international agencies with academia, civil society, co-operatives and the private sector is key to delivering actual change across the globe. The International Year of Pulses 2016, licenced by the United Nations, is being driven by just such a coalition of eager non state actors. It will be refreshing to see the FAO keep up with them in its facilitating role.

The next day delivered a perfect example of this partnership in action with The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences bringing together policy makers, scientists, R&D directors and NGO’s for a scientific conference. The role of pulses was clear in feeding a growing global population under the mounting pressure, amplified by climate change, of constrained resources such as land, water and energy. The solution was not just about sufficient sustainably produced calories but nutritional quality as well. To reinforce the point, every meal time and snack break at the conference was pulses based and, as one might expect from the Sackler Institute, perfectly nutritionally balanced.

And what did New York’s chefs make of pulses as ingredients? Ken Aretsky’s team at that midtown temple of tranquil elegance, Patroon, were undaunted in delivering a pulses themed banquet from canapés to petits fours in the classic style for which they are renowned.

The next evening, celebrity chefs Alex Guarnaschelli, Sam Mason, Seamus Mullen, Michael Solomonov and Brad Farmerie each popped up altars of pulses inspired culinary innovation within the broad church of Public, a Michelin starred NoLIta destination. The feedback was promising:

It was not a challenge to work with pulses, it was a delight; they are so versatile in terms of texture and mouthfeel and they hold flavour like a sponge.

Consumer acceptance of alternative protein sources is going to be taste driven and pulses seem well positioned. Farmerie, educated this side of the pond at Chez Nico, Le Manoir and The Providores, was a charming host whose red lentil pumpkin pie with white bean cream was subtlety on a plate.

So that's four pulses themed meals in 48 hours, without a single baked bean in sight – unusual for an Englishman, even in New York.

The views expressed here belong to the speaker and do not necessarily represent FAO’s views, positions, strategies or opinions


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