Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Harnessing the Power of Pulses to End Global Hunger: A Conversation with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Jeff Ehlers

This blog post was written by David Guerena, Agriculture Innovations Manager at One Acre Fund.

Before the advent of synthetic fertilizers in the early 20th century, pulses were the principal source of agricultural nitrogen for farmers. Today, pulses are still one of the main dietary staples for approximately 2 billion of the world’s poor, yet they receive a fraction of the investment that maize and other cereals receive.

With the United Nations declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP), investment in pulses may be changing. I recently sat down with one of the leading global voices in the use of pulses to fight poverty, Dr. Jeff Ehlers of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to discuss why these plants are a potential game-changer, and what actions the development community can take to harness the power of pulses.

Jeff Ehlers

DG: At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, you are leading the work on legumes. What drove your decision to pursue a career working with pulses?

JE: Surprisingly, growing up as a suburban kid in California, my first passion was actually farming. This developed from summer visits to my uncle’s farm in southeast Minnesota. I went on to do my undergraduate work at the nearby University of California, Riverside, where I was exposed to breeding and genetics and worked with sorghum and potato breeding programs. I became hooked, and soon found myself in a PhD program at the University of California, Davis working on cowpea (a pulse crop) as part of a project with partners in Senegal. I basically fell in love with the cowpea and all its morphological diversity.

DG: The United Nations has declared 2016 to be the International Year of Pulses. For the agriculture novices out there, what about legumes make them such an important tool in the fight to end global poverty?

JE: Legumes, and particularly the pulse subgroup, provide multiple benefits: they improve soil fertility, boost health and nutrition, and can provide stable income for smallholder farmers.

Possibly the most unique thing about the pulse crops is that they require little if any input of nitrogen fertilizers, due to their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. All legumes have the rare ability to form a beneficial association with soil bacteria on their roots, which boosts soil fertility. Additionally, the plants provide nitrogen to the next crop when they decompose in the soil. When grown in rotation with other crops, pulses help improve staple crop (e.g. rice/wheat/maize) yields by breaking soil-borne pest and disease cycles that afflict these crops. 

From an economic perspective, pulses diversify smallholder income streams and mitigate risks associated with staple crop price fluctuations. Over time, staple crop prices can be volatile, having multiple crops to sell helps bring income stability. When farmers grow pulses in addition to crops like maize, it helps buffer the farm from catastrophic disease and pest infestations and climate-related production disruptions.

From a nutritional and dietary diversity perspective, the leaves and immature pods of these crops can be consumed as high-value nutritious vegetables, and the grain is an important source of vitamins, minerals and protein for rural smallholder families.  Additionally, the non-grain portion of the plant provides an important component of livestock food that can dramatically boost livestock yields and health.

DG: One thing I find interesting is that hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars are invested globally in agronomy and genetic improvement of cereal crops yet only a small fraction of this amount is allocated to legumes. Besides the IYP, what do you think has to happen for more investment to flow towards legumes research?

JE: I think we have to advocate for more pulse research and policies that favor (or at least don’t discriminate against) increased pulse production.  Historically, governments pretty much everywhere have favored staples by implementing policies and programs (such as subsidized crop insurance, market price supports, and fertilizer subsidies) that have not been offered to pulse producers. These types of policies have often caused pulses to be less profitable and relegated to more marginal lands. The low yields obtained in these circumstances only fuel the mistaken notion that pulse crops are inherently low- yielding.  In addition, because staple cereals have been receiving greater investments over the last several decades, we’ve seen small annual productivity gains from breeding in these crops that we have not seen in legumes, so now these cereals do in fact have higher levels of yield potential and pest and disease resistance. You can see how this puts pulses at a further disadvantage.

DG: That’s a really good point, and it reminds me of something else I’ve been thinking about. Right now, most of the global research for legumes is dedicated to commercial soybean production rather than other indigenous legumes species and traditional cropping systems. What steps can the global development community take to prioritize investments in these “alternative” legume species and cropping systems, which are more commonly grown in impoverished rural communities. 

JE: The grain legume and pulse community is small and fragmented across a number of warm and cool season crops, and across the developed and developing world, each with different perspectives and aims. The IYP presents an opportunity to bring this community together, so we can make a united case for more favorable treatment of pulses as a global nutrition and environmental opportunity.

There are also opportunities for organizations to coalesce around certain technical areas — solutions to disease threats are relevant to all of us. And in in some cases, it might be worthwhile to encourage food companies to develop products from some of these less common crops, in order to create space for initial production and aggregation at sufficient scale.

This is a selection of David Guerena’s interview. To read the full interview, please click here.