World Pulses Day: The value of pulses in agriculture and nutrition

World Pulses Day: The value of pulses in agriculture and nutrition

Harnessing the potential of these leguminous crops will help in minimising human health hazards, particularly those related to synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers

The purpose of celebrating international days is to educate the general masses on various concerns, challenges, prospects and progress made in a particular field. In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. The objective was to increase public awareness about the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) at the apex. This was followed by another UN resolution in year 2019 in which 10th February was proclaimed as World Pulses Day. This day provides an occasion to know about pulses, especially their value in agriculture and nutrition.
When we talk of India, pulses have a great significance in the country’s nutrition. Around 43% of the population in the country is vegetarian and pulses are an important source of protein for them. It is because of this reason that pulses are part of the cultural heritage of the country. India has made good progress in pulses production over the years. The initiative taken by the government under NFSM has greatly helped the country to improve pulses production. For the purpose, 644 districts of 28 States and Union Territories (UTs) of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh were covered under the NFSM-Pulses programme of GOI. According to the guidelines of the programme, incentives are given to the farmer for cluster demonstration, seeds distribution, production of certified seeds of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs), farm machineries & tools, micro-irrigation, plant protection chemicals, nutrient management, soil ameliorants, and training. Consequently, the pulses production has increased from 14.6 million tonnes in 2010-11 to 23.03 million tonnes in 2020-21, which is 58 % higher. In Jammu & Kashmir also, pulses production has increased considerably after the initiative. In 2016-17 the production was only 10.26 thousand tonnes, which increased to 44.17 thousand tonnes in 2019-20. That is a huge jump in production to the tune of 330%.
Despite being wonderful crops gifted with the unique ability of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, deep root system, efficient water use, and yield stability under poor resource availability, pulses face a lot of challenges to make adequate space in the existing cropping systems in most parts of the world. Here in India also, the pulses programme was not at all n easy task, as motivating farmers was a bit difficult. This is because high-yielding varieties of cereals are considered more remunerative than pulses. Non-availability of adequate quantities of quality seed of improved varieties, policy issues like minimum support price and infrastructure development for the processing of pulses were some other reasons for poor adoption. Low average productivity, even less than 1 tonne per hectare, makes them a less preferred crop and pulses are therefore predominantly grown under resource-poor and harsh environments frequently prone to drought and other biotic and abiotic stresses.
In Kashmir valley, there is ample scope to further improve pulses production by integrating with horticulture crops. Inter-cropping short stature pulses in apple orchards during juvenile phase has been a practice in the past and there is good scope of intercropping with High Density Apple orchards, for which we have to generate data and standardise the location-specific intercropping systems. Introducing pulses in the existing cropping systems either in rotation or as intercrop is very beneficial because of many complementary effects. Past experience shows that nutrient supply through chemical fertilisers alone is not wise. Integration of organic and biological sources of nutrients in the existing practice is essential to sustain production and at the same time reduce environmental pollution.
Pulses, in association with specific bacterial strains are endowed with the ability to convert unavailable nitrogen gas present in the atmosphere into plant nourishment. This symbiotic association between pulses and bacteria has a great impact on nitrogen dynamics. Research reveals that this group of crops also contributes in improving soil nutrient status with respect to other essential nutrients including micronutrients. Pulses are also considered essential components of soil conservation technology owing to certain unique features like 1.) Ability to produce maximum foliage in a short time to cover ground, which helps in reducing direct impact of rains drops, water runoff and wind on soil, thus reducing soil erosion. Cowpea, green gram and black gram, for example, give early and dense ground cover which generally coincide with peak rate of runoff and are, therefore, recognised as important cover crops of the rainy season, 2.) Tap root system, which penetrates deep and increases the permeability of the soil at lower depths. This helps in increasing water intake capacity of the soil and consequently reduces runoff, 3.) Decaying roots build up the organic matter status of soil which in turn improves physical condition of soil plus encourages earthworm activity.
Thus, pulses facilitate infiltration and percolation of water. In addition to these, some fast growing pulses compete very efficiently with weeds for limited resources like nutrients, water, sunlight and space by covering the soil surface very quickly. This reduces weed population and their adverse impact on yield and quality. As inter crops they not only provide additional commodity but also reduce weed population and have complementary effect on the main crop. Pulses also improve soil physical properties by producing a sticky proteinious substance called glomalinin in the rhizosphere (narrow region of soil/substrate near roots) which increases soil aggregate stability.
Being a cheap and rich source of protein, pulses play a vital role in the nutrition of the country as a dietary component of a huge chunk of vegetarian population. On average pulses contain 20%-25% protein on dry seed basis, which is almost three times of the value observed for many cereals. These proteins provide amino acids for the synthesis of body protein and other biologically important compounds in the body. Amino acid composition of pulse protein complements that of cereals, as pulse proteins are rich in lysine and comparatively poor in sulphur containing amino acids. An almost reverse situation occurs in cereal proteins. Cereal and pulse protein blend makes dal-chawal or dal-roti an excellent food combination. According to the recommendations of Indian Council of Medical Research, 50g and 60g pulse per day are required for an average adult woman and man, respectively. Taking this into consideration, the importance of pulses for the country that has the second-highest population in the world cannot be overemphasised. The adequate supply of proteins in the form of pulses, therefore, will definitely contribute immensely in the nutritional security of the country.
Since symbiotic nitrogen fixation contributes a good deal of nitrogen to soil, it helps in minimising dependence on chemical fertilisers. This in turn reduces chemical load in soils and pollution related to fertiliser manufacturing. Harnessing this potential of these leguminous crops will surely help in minimising human health hazards, particularly those related to synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers.

The writer is Sr Scientist & Head, KVK-Kulgam, SKUAST-Kashmir. [email protected]

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