Getting the pulse right for sustainable living

The World Environment Day is observed every year on June 5, and this year with the slogan ‘Only One Earth’, the day focussed on the theme ‘Living Sustainably in Harmony with Nature’. We must reflect, with all solemnity, the effect of human civilization on the environment, and pay our gratitude to Mother Earth for being the nurturer of our ancestors, of our present generation, and possibly, if we do not destroy it, of our future generations.

Humans and environment have been intimately linked with each other throughout our evolution from primates, and this link was further strengthened with the advent of agriculture. The agricultural revolution in many ways is the precursor to the dawn of human civilizations. In the book Early Indians, the writer Tony Joseph rightly states: ‘Not all agricultural societies become civilizations, but no civilization can become one without passing through the age of agriculture.’ And despite progress in many other sectors, agriculture continues to be a major source of income throughout the world, including India. All successive governments in the country have focused on making India self-sufficient in the production of food grains and ensuring food security for the nation.

Since the initiation of the green revolution during the 1960s, the production of food grains has increased manifold, primarily dominated by crops like paddy and wheat. The policies incentivised a rice-wheat cropping pattern and enabled the country to produce adequate food to feed its enormous, and growing, population. Although the nation has largely achieved food security, it continues to face challenges to meet nutritional security. According to the National Family Health Survey (2019-21), around 32 per cent of children (under 5 years) are underweight and 35.5 per cent are stunted in the country owing to protein deficiency. In addition, concerns about soil degradation and sustainable agriculture have ignited renewed interest in increasing organic carbon content in soil through crop rotation and diversification. Bringing larger area under the cultivation of pulse crops could address both the issues of nutritional deficiency among children and deterioration of soil health.

An analysis of the economies of pulses across states reveals that the cost of cultivation of pigeon pea and black gram is Rs 31,772 / ha and Rs 18,520 / ha, respectively – much lower than the cost of paddy cultivation (Rs 38,231 / ha) in 2018-19. Yet, farmers prefer to cultivate paddy / wheat over pulses owing to the guaranteed market support for them. For example, in the year 2018-19, around 38 per cent of the wheat and 34 per cent of the paddy produced were sold to the procurement agencies at MSP in Madhya Pradesh. However, pulse procurement remained around 15 per cent for major pulses in the state (Situation Assessment Survey, 2018-19). Inadequate support mechanisms have resulted in decreased area under pulses (as a share of gross cropped area) from 15.4 per cent in 1957-1958 to 13 per cent in 2017-18 in the country (Ministry of Agriculture).

Pulses are also well known to absorb atmospheric nitrogen and enrich soil with nutrients, thus increasing crop yields. They contribute to increasing the availability of nitrogen for subsequent crops and are often referred to as “mini nitrogen-factories.” According to a report published by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), introduction of pulses in the rice-wheat cropping system could fix up to 147 kg / ha nitrogen in the soil. Thus, pulses could be used to bridge the nitrogen deficiency found in Indian soils and reduce the need for application of synthetic fertilizers. Various studies have also found that the cultivation of pulses as an inter-crop enhances the capacity of soil to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the extent of carbon emission.

In addition, pulses have a high protein content, which is specifically crucial for almost one-third of the vegetarian population in the country. According to the nutrition chart published by the latest round of NSS (2011-12), pulses are not only the cheapest source of protein, but also one of the richest sources of protein and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, potassium, and folate. Although India is the largest producer of pulses, only about a tenth of the total protein consumption of its population is derived from this crop. In fact, the availability of pulses has decreased from 25.2 kg / capita to 17.5 kg / capita during 1961-2020. This may be attributed to a decrease in protein intake in an average Indian population from 62 grams in 1993-1994 to 56 grams in 2011-12 (NSSO). India, with its large diversity of pulses, can not only counteract the protein deficiency, but may help prevent several modern lifestyle diseases. As an example, the black gram pulse variety produced by the tribal farming community in Jharkhand is known to contain specific antioxidants and helps curb diabetes.

So, World Environment Day should be used as an occasion to reorient our policies towards crop diversification and promotion of sustainable farming. Incentives must be provided to enhance the production of pulses through better market support for farmers.

Consumption of pulses should be promoted through distribution channels and by including them in the mid-day meal programs for children. Concerted efforts to enhance production, as well as consumption of pulses, will ensure a win-win situation for our farmers, consumers, and the Mother Earth.

(Prerna Terway is a Research Scholar at JNU and Ranjana Roy is a Research Fellow at ICRIER)


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