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Pulses are an essential source of protein and minerals for much of the global population, to reflect this the UN has named 2016 as the ‘’International Year of Pulses.’ However, despite increasing demand, global pulse productivity remains low at around a quarter of global cereal yields per hectare, according to IFPRI.

A recent IFPRI discussion paper investigates the trends and outlook for both global and regional pulse economies, looking at the supply, demand, trade, prices, and outlook of the pulse sector during the last three decades. The study covers the main pulse producing regions, namely: Europe, North America, Oceania, Africa, Latin America, and Asia using data from the FAOSTAT database complemented by national-level data. The report also provides an in-depth analysis of a selected group of pulse crops including chickpea, lentils, pigeon pea, dry beans, and dry peas.

The average share of pulses in global diets is only 5 percent of total protein consumption, but pulses’ contribution to diets at the country level is significantly higher, reaching up to 40 percent of protein consumption in some countries. Moreover, pulses contain other essential nutrients such as calcium, iron, and lysine that help the body fight vitamin and mineral deficiencies and disease. Thus, pulses can be important in fighting malnutrition. Pulses also contribute to soil fertility due to their nitrogen-fixing ability, which helps reduce the need for chemical fertilizers for crops planted on the same land.

The report provides an overview of changes over the past three decades in total pulse production, area under cultivation, and yields per hectare. Globally, pulse production increased from 44.9 million tons in 1981-1983 to 72.3 million tons in 2011-2013. The area under production increased from 63 million hectares to 80 million hectares over the same time period.

Global pulse area, production, and yield grew significantly in the 1980s but stagnated in the 1990s, with virtually no growth in area and yield during this decade. The pulse growth rate picked up again in the mid-2000s; most of the growth during this time period originated from increases in area. Pulse yield per hectare has grown slowly, from 550 kilograms per hectare to 901 kilograms per hectare over the past three decades; by contrast, global cereal yields increased from 1500 kilograms per hectare to 4000 kilograms per hectare over the same time period. Pulse production also virtually stagnated in the 1990s as government policies in most developing countries favored cereal production to promote food security and self-sufficiency in staples.

Regionally, pulse production has diversified over time, with new production niches popping up across the world. In 1981–1983, Asia accounted for 51.3 percent of total world pulse production, but by 2013, its share had declined to 45.5 percent. Among the other major pulse-producing regions, Europe’s share declined significantly during this period, from 20.1 to 8.8 percent, as did Latin America’s, from 11.4 to 9.3 percent. At the same time, North America’s shares increased from 3.6 to 9.9 percent, Africa’s grew from 12.7 to 22.3 percent, and Oceania increased from 0.9 to 4.3 percent.

Regarding specific crops, cowpea showed the largest increases from the 1980s to the 2000s, with production share increasing from 3 percent of all pulses produced to 9 percent. The other important pulses whose area and production share increased during these decades include chickpeas, lentils, and pigeon peas. In contrast, dry peas’ share of production declined sharply between the 1980s and 2000s, from 21 percent of production to 14 percent.

At the country and regional level, India is the world’s largest pulse producer, accounting for 34 percent of area and 24 percent of all pulse production. Myanmar is the second-largest producer, followed by Canada, China, Nigeria, Brazil, and Australia. India, Canada, and Myammar all experienced significant increases in production over the past three deaces, while China experienced a significant decline over the same period. Production in India increased from 10.4 million tonnes to 17.5 million tonnes from 1981-1983 to 2011-2013, mainly due to increases in the area under production from 22 million hectares to 27 million hectares. In 2013, India’s average yield per hectare remained low, however, at 635 kilograms per hectare. By comparison, Myanmar’s and Ethiopia’s yield per hectare averages 1345 and 1442 kilograms, respectively, while Canada achieves the highest global yields at 2146 kilograms per hectare.

The study also analyses the global and regional pulse trade. International trade in pulses has grown significantly, from around 2 million tons of pulses in the 1970s to 12 million tons in 2011. Developed countries are the main exporters, exporting around 52 percent of production; developing countries only account for 18 percent of exports. Canada is by far the biggest exporter, exporting around 4.2 million tons annually, followed by Myammar at 1.1 million tons. Conversely, India is by far the biggest importer, at 3 million tons annually, up from 127 thousand tons in 1981. The next biggest importer is China, at 700 thousand tons.

Global pulse prices stagnated in the 1980s and 1990s but started rising again in 2000 and rose sharply in 2006. Pulse prices are currently around 2 to 2.5 times higher than cereal prices globally. Given these price changes and the shifts in supply, it is important to better understand these trends and how they may play out in the near future.

The authors make numerous projections regarding future pulse supply and demand using the IMPACT model (International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade). Supply and demand projections for total pulses were carried out under a business-as-usual scenario as a continuation of past historical trends in area and yield growth. Projections were carried out to 2020, 2030, and 2050 for the major pulse-growing regions.

The results indicate that Europe, North America, and Latin America will have a significant pulse surplus that will grow from 2020 to 2050. North America will have the largest surplus of 8 million tons in 2050, up from 5 million tons in 2020. By contrast, Africa and Asia will face large deficits in pulse supply - close to 11 million tons in Africa in 2050 and 5.5 million tons in Asia. These findings can vary within regions, however. For example, within Asia, Eastern Asia will see a surplus, while Southern Asia will see a deficit of 9 million tons by 2050.

The paper suggests that the relatively faster increase in the food demand for pulses in Africa and Asia (Southern Asia in particular) could be attributed to faster-paced increases in their populations compared with other regions. Between 2020 and 2050, Africa’s population is projected to increase by close to 60 percent, while that of Southern Asia will expand by 27 percent. In addition to a growing population, other drivers of pulse demand could include the importance of pulses as a protein source for vegetarian populations, income growth for low-to-medium-income consumers, growth in urban populations and increased demand for processed pulse products, and the realization of the health benefits of pulses. An analysis by Kumar, Joshi, and Birthal projects that demand for pulse crops in Southern Asia (comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) will increase from 17.6 million tons in 2005 to 24 million tons by 2025. That rate of growth in demand for pulses is more than the rate projected for any cereal crop (including rice and wheat).

Supply-side constraints are the major obstacles in increasing global pulse supply. These constraints include low yields in developing countries (pulses are mainly grown in marginal areas under low-input conditions), small-scale production, lack of access to improved seeds, low seed replacement rates, weak institutional arrangements, low research priorities, and a lack of government support compared to cereals. The study makes a number of general recommendations that are intended to stimulate global pulse production, including: investing in pulse yield improvements in developing countries, promotion of short-duration varieties that can be included in existing cropping patterns, increasing farmers’ access to improved cultivar seeds, promoting pulses in areas not currently under cultivation (such as rice fallows in India), promoting pulse intercropping, ensuring product upgrades in the pulse value chain, and providing incentives for growing pulses, as is currently done for cereal crops in many countries.

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