India is home to more poor and malnourished people than any other country in the world. With India’s population already well over 1 billion and continuing to grow, food security remains a top national priority. A new book, published by IFPRI, looks at how pulses can help solve India’s food security challenges.
According to the editors, expanding pulse production in India could improve poor populations’ nutrition outcomes, boost the country’s economy, and contribute to environmental sustainability. Pulses have traditionally been an important part of many Indians’ diets, with 89 percent of consumers eating pulses at least once per week, and provide an inexpensive source of protein and important micronutrients. By increasing domestic pulse production, India would also become less reliant on imports, supporting the long-standing government goal of food self-sufficiency. In addition, pulse cultivation can improve overall soil health, leading to enhanced soil productivity and improved yields for crops across the board. Pulses can also be grown throughout various seasons and in various regions thanks to India’s diverse agroclimatic conditions.
Despite the importance of pulses and the fact that India is a leading pulse producer, however, the country has been unable to meet its own domestic pulse demand. The book points out that pulse production in India has become increasingly disadvantaged in recent years and relatively less profitable compared with cereal production in some areas. This shift has occurred for several reasons.
First, the Green Revolution in the 1960s pushed pulse cultivation to rainfed areas, making pulses a more risky crop to grow. Second, recent technology developments have focused on improving cereal yields rather than pulse yields. Third, pulses are particularly susceptible to pests and disease due to their high protein content. Finally, while India’s minimum support payments (MSPs) apply to four pulse crops, the procurement amount is insignificant; in addition, the MSPs only serve as a benchmark price and are often well below market prices. Thus, pulse farmers still rely on traders for their sales.
For all of these reasons, pulse production in India has risen only 32 percent in the past 56 years, according to the book. This is compared to an increase of 280 percent for cereal production during the same period. Similarly, pulse yields have increased by only 25 percent, compared to a growth in cereal yields of 211 percent. The amount of land dedicated to pulses marginally decreased between 1975 and 2005, dropping from 24 million hectares to 23 million; while this rebounded to 26.3 million hectares in 2011-2012, it dropped again in 2013-2014 to 25 million hectares.
This decline in pulse production is reflected in three trends, the book says:
- While aggregate demand has risen due to population growth, per capita consumption of pulses declined continuously between the 1980s and the early 2000s. Consumption has risen slightly in recent years, it remains below the level of consumption seen in the 1980s. This broad trends hides some heterogeneity, however; consumption of chickpeas and pigeon peas has dropped, but consumption of less expensive pulses like peas and lentils has been on the rise.
- Pulse prices have consistently increased over the past few decades. This has translated into reduced access for poor households, thus reducing the potential for pulses to improve nutrition outcomes among this segment of the population.
- Pulse imports have risen sharply since the late 1990s, despite reduced consumption. The value of pulse imports to India equals almost USD 1.5 billion.
The book reports that demand for pulses in India could grow to 20.6 million tons by 2025, driven largely by population growth. Based on this growth, the supply-demand gap will be around 3 million tons per year; this could result in further import penetration if domestic production is not increased. In order to close this supply-demand gap, India’s policies must focus on increasing pulse yields and improving pulse production; policies should also focus on expanding and diversifying the country’s pulse suppliers to prevent major exporting countries from impacting India’s pulse supply and prices.
These policies can take multiple forms. First, efforts should be made by the government to invest in infrastructure and institutional support for domestic pulse processors. In addition, the pulse sector must shift away from unorganized, smaller mills to larger, more efficient and productive mills in order to ensure a consistent supply of high-quality pulse products. This will result in lower pulse prices for consumers and will help drive demand and consumption.
Second, research and development for pulses must receive increased attention and investment from government bodies, international organizations, and private sector actors. The development of improved pulse varieties that are more resistant to weather shocks can increase yields. Similarly, research into better resource management could increase input-use efficiency of nutrients and water, both increasing pulse yields and making pulse production more environmentally sustainable.
Third, the government should increase incentives for private sector involvement in the pulse sector. Of particular importance is the role that food businesses can play in enhancing nutrition. By making nutrition security, including emphasis on consumption of nutritious foods like pulses, a driving force behind their business strategies, private sector food companies can help foster behavioral change toward healthier diets. In addition, these businesses can foster inclusive value chains that incorporate both nutritious crops and smallholder farmers, leading to benefits for both food security and poverty reduction.