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India Has Started A Global Pulse Race, But What About Home?

13/06/2016 3:47 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

The parched Indian fields may not have been able to provide us affordable pulses this year. But that is no reason to despair. Farmers across the world are rushing to plant a record number of acres to feed our love for the daily dal-chawal. India has become for the global pulses market what China is for metals. In short, it is calling the shots.

As the world's largest producer, consumer and importer of pulses--including chickpeas, lentils, pigeon peas, yellow peas, mung and urad--India drives the global plant protein market. Since our farmers are unable to keep pace with consumer demand, the profitable gap has stimulated massive production overseas. But thanks to the two-year drought, 2016 is one for the record books.

Weighted average prices for pulses were the strongest relative to grains and oilseeds in history every month in 2015. For many farmers that translated into higher than normal gross and net incomes relative to cereals and oilseeds. This is driving the international frenzy to grow pulses.

Since our farmers are unable to keep pace with consumer demand, the profitable gap has stimulated massive production overseas.

Take Canada. Saskatchewan province is the world's largest exporter of lentils and peas, with more than 65% of the global market share. Around 115,000 acres of land in Saskatchewan is also dedicated to two chana varieties -- Kabuli and Desi -- for mainly India.

In 2015, Saskatchewan exported pulses worth nearly $4.2 billion, a record. It shipped 67% of all imported peas and about 91% of all imported lentils into India. Excited by that success and India's continued shortfall, this year Saskatchewan farmers are expected to sow pulses on 7.1 million acres, shattering the record of 5.5 million in 2005. This crop should be ready for shipping by November 2016.

Similar expansion at break-neck speed is visible in Australia. Australia produces an average of 2.2 million tonnes of pulses from more than 1.8 million hectares, with the potential to double it. This year, market watchers are predicting a record crop provided the rains are favourable.

Myanmar, our biggest supplier of urad, mung and tur, exported 25% more pulses in 2015. Local farmers have been scrambling for seeds because prices touched 20-year highs. Globally, farmers are expected to plant a record 12.17 million acres of lentils, up 8% from last year.

chickpeas

In the race to expand market share, farmer bodies and governments are pumping money into making pulses less risky and easier to grow while maintaining their high economic value. Scientists in the University of Saskatchewan are developing new chickpea varieties with higher yields, early maturity, herbicide tolerance, better physical seed appearance, and processing quality. As acres have increased, so have the average yields.

Thanks to India, 2016 has indeed become the International Year of Pulses, much to the delight of farmers and traders everywhere.

Under the Pulse Breeding Australia programme, public and private plant breeders, agricultural researchers, agronomists and chemists are working closely with processors and marketers to improve the current high quality of Australian pulses. All this investment in land and productivity bodes well for the Indian consumer. Free global trade can indeed improve the food security of ordinary people living across continents.

But it remains a double-edged sword. Already other markets with similar dietary habits -- China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel, Turkey, United Kingdom, Italy and Mexico -- are importing more. The dramatic growth in America's hummus market between 1997 and 2013 increased demand for Canadian Kabuli chickpeas.

Canada and Australia are equally keen to reduce their dependence on India. The massive global marketing campaign to bring pulses centre stage, which included successfully lobbying the United Nations to designate 2016 the International Year of the Pulses, is bearing fruit.

There is a dietary shift from animal protein to plant protein as more people turn vegetarian. A recent study published by WHO linked the consumption of processed meat to an increased risk of colon cancer. Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture recommended that Americans shift towards a more plant-focused diet to stem the massive environmental damage meat production has been proven to cause.

Under the "Menus for Change" programme, Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America are promoting the "Protein Flip" by helping restaurants reduce red meat on their menu and offer dishes built around plant proteins instead. Bloggers have anointed pulses as the next big "super food". Consumers are signing the "Pulse Pledge" that commits them to eating pulses once a week for 10 weeks and thus join a global food movement.

True domination will come when India turns net exporter. That is when we will profit from the global plant protein story that starts with our daily dal-chawal.

Soon, India will have to bid higher to meet its domestic shortfall. Fluctuating exchange rates could escalate the bill. Then there is the crucial question of the food habits of the increasingly prosperous population. Over the last decade, Saskatchewan has taught our restaurants and snack-food companies to replace expensive desi chana with Canadian yellow peas in the besan and the desi tur with Canadian split green lentils. Now both yellow peas and green lentils have a permanent place on our table.

Thanks to India, 2016 has indeed become the International Year of Pulses, much to the delight of farmers and traders everywhere. But to stay in the reckoning, it needs to stimulate production at home. Given the right support from agronomists and access to the right markets, Indian farmers can easily produce enough pulses to feed the nation. True domination will come when India turns net exporter. That is when we will profit from the global plant protein story that starts with our daily dal-chawal. Meanwhile, the world is gladly beating a path to our door.

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