The role of pulses in nutrition-sensitive agriculture

Providing a long-term supply of nutritionally rich foods is key to overcoming malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Until recently, the focus of projects has been either on micronutrient supplementation or only on the food production side. However, long-term nutrition benefits can only be reached through a broader approach that connects nutrition with an agriculture that is imbedded in a social and economic frame.

Nutrition-sensitive agriculture is an approach that seeks to maximize agriculture’s contribution to nutrition. This strategy stresses the multiple benefits derived from enjoying a variety of foods, recognizing the nutritional value of food for good nutrition, health and productivity, and the social significance of the food and agricultural sector for supporting rural livelihoods.

Nutrition-sensitive agriculture also involves linking agriculture to sectors that address other causes of malnutrition, namely education, health and social protection. FAO promotes this approach to agriculture through a variety of partnerships and capacity development initiatives.  

Nowadays three food crops – rice, maize and wheat – provide nearly two-thirds of global dietary energy intake. Pulses, together with fruits and vegetables, are the primary sources of diversity in most diets, however the global supply of those is insufficient to meet recommended population-level intakes, as highlighted in the study “Do we produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet global health needs?” The study is actually based on FAO data, WHO publications and the UN World Population Prospects.   

Enriching an agro-ecosystem with pulses brings numerous advantages for farmers and local communities: pulses are key components of a healthy diet and a good source of vegetable proteins. For this reason, cowpeas are known as the meat of the poor, especially in West Africa.

Pulses are also an excellent complementary food for infants as part of a diversified diet, as proved by FAO projects in Malawi and Cambodia which provided nutrition education together with agriculture inputs to families with young children. Additionally, they can be used as high-quality feed and fodder for livestock, thus playing an important role in the production of milk and meat and the consequent dietary improvements.

In addition, pulses can improve soil fertility and increase biodiversity. They reduce the risk of total crop failure in multiple cropping systems improving food security. Pulses are amenable to a diversity of food processing and can be easily stored when dried compared to vegetables and fruits.

Finally, they can be sold and therefore generate income making food more accessible. Altogether, pulses reduce dependency on external inputs and improve sustainability of integrated crop - livestock - aquaculture production systems.

Pulses can play a central role in nutrition-sensitive agriculture, as their properties make them beneficial to both agriculture and nutrition. The International Year of Pulses represents a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the potential of pulses in the agricultural development sector and provide an additional impulse to increase their production at global level.