Pulses for food security & nutrition: The technology perspective
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Since the 1970s, there has been a minor increase in the production of pulses in India, especially compared to increases in cereal production. Between 1975 and 2005 total pulse production in India increased by 32 percent overall while cereal production increased by 280 percent, similarly, pulse yields per hectare increased by only 25 percent while those for cereals increased by 211 percent.  On a global level, pulse yields in India are also low and remain significantly below that of other countries. For instance, pulse yields in China average around 2 tons per hectare while in India they average around 0.65 tons per hectare. This is especially relevant as India remains the largest consumer and importer of pulses globally.

A recent paper by IFPRI researchers and published in the Indian Journal of Genetics and Plant Breeding investigates the Indian pulse sector from the technological perspective. Specifically, the paper provides an historical overview of pulse production and pulse technologies in India, providing technological recommendations that can stimulate increased pulse production and yields.

Historically, there have been numerous efforts by the Indian Government to support increases in pulse production and productivity. For instance, the Indian Institute of Pulses Research set up in 1967, developed and released around 250 new seed varieties between 1990 and 2010. Another example refers to various pulse development schemes that were integrated into various 5 year plans. The paper highlights, however, that these initiatives failed to achieve large scale increases in pulse production and that the daily per capita availability of pulses reduced consistently from 66 grams in 1965 to 33 grams in 2005.

A more disaggregated investigation shows that despite low average yields across India, certain areas have achieved higher yields and higher rates of technological adoption. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh chickpea yields have more than tripled to around 1.4 tons per hectare since 1987. The main drivers of these growth rates have been the increased use of fallow lands, the adoption of short duration and high yielding varieties (covering over 90 percent of the area under pulse cultivation) and mechanized farming.

Based on this, the authors argue that there appears to be a significant level of unexploited technological potential in various areas of the pulse sector across India. A key constraint identified is the lack of improved seed varieties for farmers. In this regard, the paper highlights that pulse research has been unable to develop varieties to compete with the high-yielding rice and wheat varieties that supported the green revolution. Another area of significant potential is the use of rice-fallows (which are fallow during the rabi season) for the production of pulses, it is estimated that this alone can increase the area under pulse production by around 3-4 million hectares.

The paper highlights a number of technological avenues through which the production of pulses can be stimulated. On the one hand, the paper calls for significant increases in investment in the research and development of high yielding and resilient pulse varieties. Historically, the private sector has undertaken little research into pulses (especially compared to other crops) and providing an enabling environment and/or incentives for the private sector to undertake research can significantly stimulate seed development. In this regard, a proposal put forward by the paper focuses on the establishment of a demand-pull system that financially rewards the development of relevant and successful varieties and technologies.   

Another area where technology can play an important role is in resource management, especially in the context of climate change. Technologies that improve the efficiency of agricultural inputs, such as micro-irrigation systems, need to be developed and made financially accessible to Indian farmers. These technologies will allow farmers to plant pulses on rice fallows during the rabi season; this is especially relevant as a key constraint for not using rice fallows are a lack of adequate agricultural inputs.

In conclusion, it is important that the development of these technologies occurs in tandem with efforts, such as increased extension services, that make them accessible to farmers. Historically, pulses have been crowded out of areas that benefitted the most from the green revolution; in this context a major challenge is to include pulses in new production systems with a range of agro-ecologies. The development of affordable climate resilient and high yielding varieties as well as resource management technologies is likely to support pulse production under these different agro-ecologies. Moreover, global pulse prices have risen over the past few years due to increasing global demand; these continued high prices are also likely to facilitate the adoption of technology in pulse farming and the choice of farmers to grow pulses. However, high prices make pulses less accessible to net consumers, especially the poor, which could further increase their dependence on cereals that do not provide a significant amount of nutrition.

The full paper can be accessed here.

By: Bas Paris


Photo credit:Flickr, ICRISAT