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Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Orphan food? Nay, future of food

Pulses are important from the perspectives of food security, environmental sustainability and balanced nutrition

Most pulses such as pigeon pea (tur dal), black gram (urad), green gram (mung), field beans (waal), moth beans (matki) and horse gram (kulith) are native to the Indian subcontinent and have been an integral part of our diet for centuries. However, the single-minded focus on cereals over the last 50 years—the green revolution in wheat and rice no doubt helped in overcoming a severe food crisis in the 1960s—has turned crops such as pulses into orphan foods.

Whereas the production of wheat increased by about 850% over 50 years, pulses increased by only 50%. The result: the “pulse rate" has skyrocketed! Retail price of tur dal has often soared to Rs. 200 per kg. Despite producing 18 million tonnes (25% of the world’s supply), India imports 5.5 million tonnes—30% of worldwide imports. The annual value of imports has now crossed $4 billion. We have inadvertently created a new food security issue for ourselves.

And it is not about food security alone. Pulses are better than other crops for environmental sustainability and balanced nutrition. Compared to high-yield varieties of cereals, pulses require lower amounts of water, fertilizers and pesticides. Per kilogram of protein, pulses require almost 50 times less water than meat. The nitrogen fixing property of pulse crops implies much lower usage of nitrogenous fertilisers, production of which creates carbon pollution. Inter-cropping, crop rotation, and relay cropping of pulses with other crops increase their productivity.

Pulses are also a store-house of protein, antioxidants, fibre and micronutrients such as iron and folic acid. When consumed with cereals, pulses improve protein quality and absorption, and with vitamin C (read lemon juice or tamarind), they facilitate absorption of iron and folic acid. Many traditional Indian preparations such as pithala-bhakri, idli-sambar, dal-dhokli, waran-bhat, bhel-puri, dal-chawal, rajma-rice exploit these properties. It is no wonder that the Global Pulse Confederation (GPC) calls pulses the Future of Food and the UN General Assembly has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. How do we ensure that pulses actually become the future of food?

First, agricultural research must prioritize increasing yields. The National Food Security Mission and the Accelerated Pulses Production Programme, implemented since 2009, have led to only marginal gains. Fortunately, advances in biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) foods have created new possibilities of more productive pulse varieties.

However, protecting the intellectual property rights of private biotech firms and agricultural research institutions which do the developmental work is extremely important. India has not allowed GM foods so far, but necessity may overturn such a policy soon.

Second, although economists do not generally suggest government intervention in market prices, minimum support prices (MSP) for pulses may have to be implemented for a number of years. Given the positive externalities of environmental sustainability, nutritional security and food security, MSP in pulses is justified. Third, pulse production must be supported by canals and check dams. CRISIL notes that only 16% of the total area under pulses is irrigated, in contrast to 58% for food grains. The funds saved by the current shift away from subsidies on agricultural inputs should be spent on irrigation infrastructure in arid regions.

Fourth, sustained procurement of pulses at MSP by the Food Corporation of India for distribution through the public distribution system would help. Government schemes such as Anganwadi and Mid-Day Meal Scheme can procure pulses for chana-chikkis and prepared dal.

Fifth, improving processing and storage facilities at the village level will give farmers more bargaining power vis-à-vis traders and bulk processors. In 2013, the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) developed a mini dal mill to convert whole tur dal into market-ready dried split tur dal, thus doubling the income of the women who used it. Similar technologies can provide incentives to farmers to grow pulses.

Sixth, futures markets provide a price discovery mechanism to farmers and traders. High futures prices signal the need for more pulse production in the following season. Government must allow farmers and traders to buy and sell pulses in the futures market on commodity exchanges such as National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange. Banning futures in pulses, which has happened now, would be tantamount to the proverbial shooting of the messenger who faithfully delivers the message of an impending situation.

Seventh, the gap between retail and farm-gate prices has to be minimized. For agricultural commodities, marketing costs and margins of middlemen account for about 50% of the retail price. These can be compressed by offering more efficient distribution channels and warehousing, allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in wholesale and retail markets and allowing private markets to compete with Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee mandis.

Finally, for the 30% of Indians who are strict vegetarians, pulses are an important source of protein. The rest have the luxury of being non-vegetarian, at least occasionally. Unfortunately, tariff on imports of chicken products is prohibitively high (125%), when standard tariff rates on other imports in India are about 5, 10 or 15% with an occasional high tariff of about 30%. In fact, dal has been imported at zero percent tariff for quite some time! Reducing the tariff on chicken products will certainly ease the pressure on pulses.

Pulses are important from the perspectives of food security, environmental sustainability and balanced nutrition. If the policies suggested above are implemented, the orphaned food crop of today will certainly become the future of food. Let us hope the International Year of Pulses motivates all stakeholders—farmers, scientists, traders, consumers and administrators—to understand the pulse of the Indian market.

Satish Deodhar teaches economics at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.

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