Trends in worldwide production, consumption and trade of pulses

The cultivation of pulses can be traced back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia grew peas, beans and lentils as far back as 8 000 BC, and researchers recently discovered evidence of faba beans cultivated in northern Israel over 10 000 years ago.[1] These staple crops have been an integral part of human diets for millennia, and today are an important crop not only for food security, but also for combatting malnutrition, alleviating poverty, improving human health and enhancing agricultural sustainability.

Yet pulses have not experienced anywhere near the same production increase as that of maize, wheat, rice and soya in the last 50 years. Between 1961 and 2012, the advances of the Green Revolution led to massive gains in both yield and production of many basic foodstuffs through the industrialization of farming. During this period maize, wheat, rice and soya all saw cumulative production gains somewhere between 200 percent and 800 percent, while pulses expanded by only 59 percent over the same timeframe.[2]

Consumption of pulses has seen a slow but steady decline in both developed and developing countries. By contrast, consumption of dairy products and meat has increased, and is predicted to continue to rise considerably. No major changes are foreseen in per capita consumption of pulses, with the world average remaining at around 7 kg/person/year.

So why aren’t pulses faring as well as other crops? The answer lies partially in changing patterns of diet and consumer preferences. As countries become richer, populations are shifting from vegetable proteins to more expensive protein sources like dairy and meat. However, this is not to suggest that there will be a surplus of pulses or a drop in demand—in many countries, the population is growing at a rate that exceeds farming output, i.e. farmers cannot grow enough pulses to keep up with increased demand. In these cases, countries are forced to import pulses, which explains why international trade in pulses has grown much more rapidly than production.

This trend is expected to continue as production of pulses lags behind trade. In India and China, the consequences of this imbalance are already manifesting. China recently transitioned from net-exporter to net-importer of pulses, and India—the world’s largest producer and importer of pulses—is experiencing massive price hikes in pulses after a poor harvest this year. The International Year of Pulses is therefore more important than ever, as raising awareness about these important crops can help increase production, encourage new research and development, and ultimately ensure that pulses are widely available for consumption throughout the world.