On the pulse

Pulses are key in combating hunger and food security

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This year South Africa joins the rest of the world in celebrating the International Year of Pulses (IYP2016). Pulses are leguminous plants such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas, and are a critical source of protein and amino acids for both people and animals.

Health organisations around the world recommend eating pulses as part of a healthy diet to prevent and help manage obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer.

Pulses have nitrogen-fixing properties that can contribute to increased soil fertility and have a positive impact on the environment.

In the global context, IYP2016 will complement Sustainable Development Goals 2 (To end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture) and 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages).

The United Nations (UN) focus year aligns with various other UN initiatives to address poverty, hunger and food insecurity around the world, like the second UN Decade for the Elimination of Poverty (2008-2017), and the UN High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, established in April 2008 to promote a comprehensive and unified response to the challenge of achieving global food security.

Pulses, especially dry peas, are useful as animal feed. Some 25% of pulses produced are used to feed animals, especially pigs and poultry. Complementing animal feed with improved varieties of pulses has been shown to improve animal nutrition significantly, yielding better livestock, which in turn supports food security. A study in West Africa showed that animals fed cowpea hay during the dry season, along with rice feed meal, gained 95 kg, compared to 62 kg for animals that did not receive the cowpea fodder. The manure was also of improved quality and the study estimated that farmers that used cowpea fodder could benefit from an extra 50 kg of meat a year and over 300 kg of cereal grain from the improved soil quality.

Pulses are locally adapted and can be grown by local farmers for their own nutrition as well as for sale. They are widely accepted crops, which keep well in storage.

Pulses, because of their role in improving sustainability, notably through soil management, also impact food security. Soil degradation is a major threat to food security in many areas.

Africa is particularly impacted by soil degradation, yet pulses are part of traditional diets and often grown by small farmers. By improving the crop patterns using pulses, farmers can improve their yields and limit the long-term threat to food security that soil degradation represents.

The aim of celebrating IYP2016 in South Africa is to raise public awareness about the important role pulses could play in addressing hunger and food insecurity, as well as to encourage the growing of pulses by the general public. IYP supports government priorities to eliminate poverty and the Nine-Point Plan objectives to revitalise agriculture and the agroprocessing value chain, and provide a long and a healthy life for all South Africans.

The Department of Science and Technology is supporting the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council, which are holding an International Congress on Food Security and Safety from 16 to 18 May 2016. One of the sessions will be focused on pulses and their nutritional value.

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