Bean Counting

Bowls of different kinds of beans

© O. Vasileva/123RF

Should Indians be growing and eating more pulses?

Beans, peas, and lentils—collectively known as pulses—are a cheap and readily available source of protein that have long played a large role in Indian diets. Every state has its own version of dal, a stew made from pulses, and its own techniques for preparing it. India produces and consumes one-quarter of the global supply—much more than any other country. Besides their nutritional benefits, pulses can fix nitrogen in soils, improving soil fertility. But, according to recent IFPRI research, the price of pulses in India is rising, and Indians’ per capita consumption is on the decline as they have moved toward a more diverse diet.

“The Indian government is making a strong effort to increase pulse production,” says P. K. Joshi, director of South Asia for IFPRI. “Yet available production is not sufficient to meet the existing demand for pulses.” At a recent workshop on pulses in India sponsored by IFPRI’s South Asia Office and the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) CGIAR Research Program, participants examined the state of pulses in India and considered ways of expanding the role of pulses in contributing to a healthy food system.

Supply Falls Behind

From 1988 to 2009, consumption of pulses fell by 28 percent in poor households and by 37 percent in high-income households. Still, although Indians are eating more meat, fruits, and vegetables, their consumption of protein remains low. At the same time, although per capita consumption has fallen, total demand for pulses has been growing continuously, owing to population growth, an expanding economy, and increasing awareness of pulses’ health and nutrition benefits.

Pulse production hovered between 11 and 14 million tons for decades and then jumped in recent years to around 18 million tons. Nonetheless, India’s total production remains about 3–4 million tons below demand. Several factors have limited pulse production and productivity, including the fact that pulses are grown on marginal lands, low response of pulses to input management, on-field biotic and abiotic stresses, and unstable prices. Given the gap between supply and demand, imports of pulses—and prices to consumers—have risen.

Opportunities Abound

Much can be done to raise production of pulses in India. For example, technological advances and high-yield varieties could be made available to farmers. Huge opportunities exist to increase pulse production in rice-fallow systems and in nontraditional areas such as semi-tropic rainfed regions. Joshi points to the Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Haryana, which have included pulses in their public food procurement and distribution systems, as models for the rest of India. “A new initiative to include pulses in the public distribution system will help supply pulses to poor people and make a difference to their nutritional security,” he says.

On the consumer side, more could be done to develop new food products made from pulses, points out John McDermott, director of A4NH. “While private firms would be most interested in middle-class consumers,” he says, “we would like to speed up innovations in foods for poor people, both rural and urban.” Possible approaches include promoting public-private partnerships and making policies and regulations more supportive of nutrition and food safety.

Although Joshi makes the case for increasing domestic production of pulses, which are not easily available in the global market, he also points out that trade could play a bigger role in meeting demand. “Trade is fluctuating due to changing domestic production,” he says. “This is not giving clear and sustained signals about trade opportunities to the rest of world. Because India is a major producer, consumer, and importer, the Indian government has to give clear signals about opportunities for trade in pulses.”

For more information on this topic:

In This Issue

Building Bigger Dreams

Can we improve people’s well-being by raising their aspirations?

Into the Spotlight

The grain teff has been consumed as a staple in Ethiopia for centuries but is little known outside the country. Now, researchers are training their attention on this understudied crop.

Untangling the Asian Enigma

Although South Asia has the highest concentration of undernutrition in the world, in the past two decades Bangladesh and Nepal have both achieved striking improvements in the nutrition of their citizens. How did they do it?

Does Money Talk?

FEATURE: Millions of poor people around the world are enrolled in safety net programs that hand out cash or food. What’s the best way to design these transfer programs?