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Consuming more pulses: Can it be a solution to fight malnutrition?

For the majority of Indians who are poor, pulses form the most important source of proteins. Increasing production of pulses and improving its access will help reduce malnutrition among the poor, especially the women. Initiatives to enhance pulses production in Eastern Indian states has resulted in enhancing nutrition for the family, besides generating additional income, improving soil fertility and reducing migration.

Dr Sarker, Regional Coordinator ICARDA, observing Grasspea in Uttar Pradesh.

Dr Sarker, Regional Coordinator ICARDA, observing Grasspea in Uttar Pradesh.

South Asia is home to half of the world’s poor, 75% living in rural areas. The region is also home to a large number of urban and rural poor who spend a large proportion of their income on food. The 2014 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report ranked India 55th, amongst 76 countries with hunger situation. While no longer in the ‘alarming’ category, India’s hunger is still classified as ‘serious’ according to GHI 2014.

The World Bank estimates that India is one of the highest ranking countries in the world for the number of children suffering from malnutrition. The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world. Nearly half of India’s childrenapproximately 60 million – are underweight, 45% have stunted growth (too short for their age), 20% are wasted (too thin for their height, indicating acute malnutrition), 75% are anaemic, and 57% are deficient in Vitamin A.

The problem of nutrition is two-fold – under nutrition and over nutrition. While majority of the population in India suffer from under nutrition, those who belong to higher socio economic status face problems owing to over nourishment. This simply means that in both the cases, the dietary intake is imbalanced. Some well known reasons for this imbalanced nourishment is lack of awareness, economic, religious and cultural factors. Also, women in Indian households consume less nutritious food as compared to men, affecting the nutrition and well being of both women and their children.

Indian pulses: much achieved and much awaited

In Birbhum in West Bengal, vast areas remain fallow after rice harvest. For the first time, farmers received lentil seeds through an NGO named “Manab Jamin”, a partner of ICARDA. Subrata and Moitree varieties were grown by more than 100 farmers in 8-10 villages. Farmers could harvest 610-1100 kg/ha in fallow lands. An average of USD 700/ha worth of lentil was harvested by farmers.

Meghlal Burman, a marginal tribal farmer produced 110 kg lentil in 1/3 rd acre of land. He kept aside 7 kg as seed material for next years’ cultivation. The rest was for his family consumption. He said, “I never thought in my dream that this piece of fallow land could give me such returns”. He is keen to expand lentil production next year.

A tribal woman, Ms. Laxmi Kisku is a daily wage labour. She received lentil as daily wage instead of money. She started feeding her daughter who was very weak, with lentils. And now, the girl child’s health has improved.

For the majority of Indians who are poor and who do not eat meat products, pulses form the most important source of proteins. To meet the ever growing domestic demand for pulses, however, the area and productivity under pulses have to be improved.

As per FAO 2013 statistics, pulses are grown in 28 million hectares of area with an annual production of 18 million tonnes and yield of about 650 kg/ha. Main factors, inhibiting the growth of pulses in India are: cultivation is mostly (85% of the area) under rainfed conditions, on marginal lands, with low fertility and by resourcepoor farmers, who can hardly afford inputs needed, non-availability of high yielding and location specific variety, low seed replacement rate (SRR), high susceptibility to pests and inadequate/inefficient market linkages. India on an average imports about 3-4 million tons of pulses.

Government of India, (GOI) is implementing need based programmes to increase pulses production from time to time, like Technology Mission on Oilseed and Pulses, Accelerated Pulse Production Programme (A3P) and newly introduced National Food Security Mission (NFSM) on Pulses in 2007-08. No doubt, there has been a significant increase in production of 18.45 million tonnes (MT) during 2012-13. Thanks, to the recently introduced Government lead initiatives like NFSM, which has helped Indian farmers to increase the production by adoption of improved varieties and using quality seeds as well as other inputs, from time to time. Mission was launched to bridge the yield gap in pulses through dissemination of improved technologies and farm management practices with focus on districts which have high potential but low level of productivity performance, at present.

Mission has also brought International Organizations like ICARDA and ICRISAT to work with Indian National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) partners for yield enhancement by sharing their experiences at farm level. This synchronizing effect of CGIAR institutes and NARS partners not only helped Indian farmers in increasing the productivity by bringing the latest technology but also enriching the skills of the Indian farmers and scientists’ by capacity building programmes.

Importance of pulses in improving the nutrition of the diet is also being recognised worldwide. There will be an increased focus on the research and extension on pulses in coming years in all countries with The United Nations declaring the year 2016 as “International Year of Pulses”.

Initiatives to enhance pulse production

There is a sharp decline in the availability of pulses from 70g/ capita/day in 1960-61 to 33 g/ capita/day in 2009-10, whereas, WHO recommendation is about 80 g/capita/day.

The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in collaboration with its national partners are engaged in research and development to provide new lentil technologies to farmers to contribute to nutritional security and sustainable ricebased cropping systems in the region. ICARDA has global mandate on lentil research, since its establishment in 1977.

ICARDA’s South Asia and China Regional Program based at New Delhi is working closely with the NARS partners to make the region self-sufficient in lentil production. ICARDA has been working consistently with the national programs in terms of access to basic knowledge, sharing global germplasm and international nurseries with newly developed breeding lines and improved varieties, and capacity building of National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS). This has helped the national programs to develop high yielding disease resistant varieties with local adaptation and specific niches like rainfed rice fallows in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The main strategies followed includes: i) replacement of indigenous/local varieties with improved and farmers’ preferred varieties in a participatory mode (vertical expansion) ii) targeting the new areas like rice fallows and in NE states (horizontal expansion) iii) establishing the concept of Village-Based Seed Enterprises (VBSEs) iv) capacity development of farmers.

ICARDA with its national partners in India, under NFSM intervention carried out a program in five states covering nine districts for the last three years.

Vertical expansion

A model on informal seed system

One of the major problems faced by lentil growers is poor quality seed. During the last 3-4 years of ICARDA intervention in India, it was revealed, that more than 90 per cent of the farmers use the same seed for more than 6-7 years.

In order to increase the productivity, it was felt necessary to enhance seed replacement rate (SRR) and also replace the present varieties with improved varieties.

A total of 12 improved varieties were made available to 4307 farmers in more than 300 villages. Using participatory methods, farmers were able to produce 1344 tons of quality seeds, which were distributed among farmers.

Along with improved varieties, certain technological interventions were also made resulting in increased yields. For example, varieties like Moitree, Noori and HUL-57 have shown increase of 30-60% over local varieties using farmer’s practice.

These varieties were grown both as relay crops under zero-tillage method as well as sole crop. Additional yields resulted in additional incomes to the tune of approximately USD 2.0 million besides improvement of soil health as a long-term benefit. The key contribution is that small and marginal farmers could produce lentil for their family consumption and provide nutritional security to their family members.

Horizontal expansion

About 78.8% of rice area in the Eastern Indian region is rainfed, where, rice is grown only during rainy season (June-September). Fields are left fallow after rice cultivation and this area is approximately equivalent to the net sown area of Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh. ICARDA with the NARS partners introduced short duration lentil varieties like HUL-57 and Moitree in these areas. Farmers, who were growing nothing earlier, are happy reaping returns from this additional crop.

Demonstrations were taken up by introducing lentil production in rice fallows adopting Conservation Agriculture methods, both under zero tillage and reduced tillage conditions. It was found that, growth performance of lentil was good under both reduced and zero tillage system. Reduced tillage recorded higher seed yield (513 kg/ha), stover yield (1624 kg/ha), net return (USD 272/ha) and B: C ratio (2.30) as compared to zero tillage. This may be due to moisture stress in zero tillage fields at flowering and grain filling stages. However, total cost of cultivation was lowest with zero tillage cultivation of lentil. The demonstrations were taken up under OCPF-funded project in 7 districts of two states (Tripura and West Bengal) in India, benefitting around 1900 farmers. The cultivation of lentils gave an additional income of $194-272 per hectare, while the cropping intensity doubled.

Happy lentil farmer
Happy lentil farmer

Village Based Seed Enterprises

To address the issue of timely availability of quality seed at reasonable price, ICARDA promoted the concept of “Village Based Seed Enterprises” (VBSE). VBSE is an informal method of seed production and distribution. ICARDA is working with the national partners in the region for identifying the progressive farmers, who are leaders and have enough land for producing seed. These farmers are registered with a certification agency.

Under the supervision of certification agency and the scientific staff, seed is produced and sold to the farmers locally at remunerative price. In this method, seed problem is addressed for farmer in the village itself and the seed producer also get benefitted.

With the joint efforts with the national partners, more than 16 seed hubs have been developed in different states. Farmers are happy with this initiative. These farmers now supply seed to other villages/ districts and even to other states.

Capacity development

Capacity development is also one of the important strategies being followed in the region. Farmers were trained for seed production, improved package and practices, storing etc. Training was also given on value addition (daal, pan cake, namkeen etc.) and post harvest processing (storage, pre-cleaning, air-screening, packaging, dehuling, sieving, polishing, cooking quality, etc.), particularly to women farmers. A total of 7600 farmers including 551 women farmers were trained through Farmer Field School (FFS), travelling seminars, field days, pre and post-harvest trainings etc. Also, capacities of more than 1600 farmers were strengthened under OCPF project.

Future focus

Seed Certification officer observing field in Bihar
Seed Certification officer observing field in Bihar

Promoting lentil production has resulted in enhancing nutrition for the family while generating additional income. In these areas, due to lentil production, malnutrition has been reduced, soil fertility has improved, labour migration reduced and animal feed became available from lentil straw.

Though beneficial to farmers, lentil production faces certain challenges which need to be addressed. Firstly, suitable varieties need to be developed which can adapt well under drought and terminal heat conditions, are disease resistant and which have good phenological adaptation under varying maturity periods.

Secondly, the pulses marketing chain is fragmented and inefficient. Also, the government support in terms of minimum support price (MSP) for winter pulses is low, which forces the farmers to switch to cereal crops, when irrigation is assured. Hence, this needs attention. Also, there is a need for spreading awareness on the nutritive value of pulses, especially among women.

Atul Dogra, Ashutosh Sarker, Aden Aw Hassan, Pooja Sah and Aqeel Hassan Rizvi

Atul Dogra, Ashutosh Sarker, Pooja Sah and Aqeel Hassan Rizvi
ICARDA, South Asia and China Regional Program, CGIAR Block, NASC Complex, New Delhi
Email: A.Dogra@cgiar.org

Aden Aw Hassan
ICARDA, Amman, Jordan


– Gulati, A., Ganesh-Kumar, A., Shreedhar, G., & Nandakumar, T. (2012). Agriculture and malnutrition in India. Food And Nutrition Bulletin, 33(1), 74-86

– Chand, R and Jumrani, J. (2013). Food Security and Undernourishment in India: Assessment of Alternative Norms and the Income Effect. Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 68(1):39-53