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Pulses for a Sustainable Future

Zoltán Kálmán is Permanent Representative of Hungary to the Rome-based UN agencies (FAO, IFAD, WFP). He was President of the WFP Executive Board in 2018.

ROME, Feb 10 2020 (IPS) - Reducing poverty and inequalities, eliminating hunger and all forms of malnutrition and achieve food security for all – these are some of the most important objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals. Still, the rate of poverty and inequalities is increasing and over 820 million people are going hungry. In addition, 2 billion people in the world are food insecure with great risk of malnutrition and poor health. This alarming situation is further aggravated by current trends such as the rate of population growth, impacts of climate change, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation and many others. Transition to more sustainable food systems can provide adequate solutions to all these challenges. Pulses could play an important role in this transition, having nutritional and health benefits, low environmental footprint, and positive socio-economic impacts as well. What is required to promote and support the production and consumption of more pulses? This question is particularly relevant now, since 10 February is the World Pulses Day.

Following the successful implementation of the International Year of Pulses (IYP) 2016, the Government of Burkina Faso took the initiative and proposed the establishment of World Pulses Day (WPD). Under Resolution A/RES/73/251, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) designated 10 February as World Pulses Day to reaffirm the contribution of pulses for sustainable agriculture and achieving the 2030 Agenda. WPD is a new opportunity to heighten public awareness of the multiple benefits of pulses. Pulses are more than just nutritious seeds, they contribute to sustainable food systems and a ZeroHunger world. The UNGA has invited FAO, in collaboration with other organizations, to facilitate the observance of WPD.

The topic of this year’s WFD celebration is “Plant proteins for a sustainable future”. According to FAO data, pulses are an important source of plant-based protein, providing on average two to three times more protein than staple cereals such as rice and wheat on a gram-to-gram basis. Additionally, the amino acids found in pulses complement those found in cereals. Protein is crucial for physical and cognitive development during childhood. Pulses are nutrient-dense, providing substantial amounts of micronutrients that are essential for good health. They are a good source of iron and can play an important role in preventing iron deficiency anaemia. They also provide other essential minerals such as zinc, selenium, phosphorous and potassium and are an important source of B vitamins, including folate (B9), thiamine (B1) and niacin (B3). The high B vitamin content of some pulses is of particular benefit during pregnancy as it supports the development of the foetus’ nerve function.

Pulses have a number of well-known agronomic benefits as well. They can fix nitrogen, improving soils’ organic content and reduce fertilizer needs, thus contributing to mitigating climate change impacts. Pulses increase productivity through appropriate crop rotation or intercropping. Producing a wide variety of pulses has an important role in preserving biodiversity. Pulses have very low water footprint, which is an essential feature particularly in dry areas.

These are well-known scientific and empirical evidences and I think we can simply say pulses are good both for the health of people and for the health of the planet.

Pulses are important also from socio-economic point of view, including income diversification, providing employment opportunities, improving livelihood in rural areas, etc.

Having all the nutritional and health benefits, having a numerous positive agronomic impacts, as well as the favourable socio-economic implications, why pulses do not have appropriate place in our production and consumption patterns? I can give you my answer: because of the lack of appropriate policy environment for the production and consumption of pulses.

As we know, farmers, in particular family farmers are the producers of our food and they are the best custodians of our land and other natural resources, including biodiversity, to preserve them for future generations. Family farmers have the traditional knowledge and experience, combined with innovative solutions to do farming sustainably. At the same time, farmers are also very clever and smart: their decisions to follow one or another farming method depends on the profit they can realize. To some extent farmers’ profit is linked to the markets, but their profit is mainly the consequence of governments’ policies, to provide subsidies (or policy incentives) to orient farmers’ choices, to ensure the economic viability of farming.

It is generally accepted that governments provide policy incentives to shape their food systems, including orienting farmers’ and consumers’ choices. The important question is whether the appropriate food systems are promoted and supported by these incentives?

As a current prevailing practice, high percentage of farm subsidies supports unsustainable, input-intensive, monoculture farming, with all the well-known negative consequences (biodiversity loss, soil degradation, etc.).

On the other hand, policy incentives can and should promote sustainable solutions, better reflecting the real interests and priorities of governments to preserve soil health and biodiversity, through crop diversification, including the production of a variety of pulses.

To take the right decisions policy makers should be provided with appropriate information, giving due attention to all the positive and negative impacts (the so-called environmental and human health externalities) of the various food systems. These externalities are translated in dollar terms and there are existing scientific studies showing the real costs of environmental damage and the enormous costs of public health expenditure in national budgets, as a consequence of unsustainable food systems.

This true cost accounting principle, based on solid scientific evidence, provides a good basis for taking appropriate decisions which food systems (including production and consumption patterns) should be promoted by national policy incentives. While providing assistance and policy advice to countries, UN organizations (including FAO) should pay due attention to the real costs of food and suggest national policy makers to support and promote sustainable solutions, including the production and consumption of pulses.

Pulses should also receive appropriate attention during the elaboration of the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. This process is going on now, and the Guidelines will be adopted in October this year by the Committee of World Food Security (CFS).

It would also be desirable if the Food System Summit in 2021 could help promote pulses as important elements for the transition towards more sustainable food systems.

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