Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Pulses are important food crops for addressing hunger, food security, malnutrition, environmental challenges and human health – saysDr. Perpetua Katepa-Kalala, FAO Representative in The Gambia


AUTHOR: BAJ Photo credit: ©FAO/Amadou Bah

Running under the slogan “nutritious seeds for a sustainable future”, the UN General Assembly declared2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP) to raise awareness of the many benefits of pulses, boost their production and trade, and encourage new and smarter uses throughout the food chain.
In a symbolic gesture, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva planted a number of fava beans in a planter full of soil as he proclaimed the International Year opened on 10 November 2015 in Rome, Italy.
As part of activities marking the IYP, The FAO Representative in The Gambia, Dr. Perpetua Katepa-Kalala recently granted an interview to the Biodiversity Action Journalists (BAJ). She spoke extensively on the numerous benefits of pulses towards the attainment of the Agenda 2030. Below is the full interview:

BAJ:  Ma, Good afternoon and many thanks for granting us this interview despite your very busy schedules. Can you explain what pulses are and tell us what type of pulses we have in The Gambia?
FAOR: Thank you. Let me begin by sayingthat 2016 was declared as the International Year of Pulses. So, we have been paying particular attention to them and I am really glad to have this opportunity to be able to speak a little more about pulses and hopefully inform people about the importance of this particular crop. Pulses are from the plant pieces called leguminosae. It is the leguminosae family which is also known as the Pea family. They produce edible seeds which are used for both human and animal consumption. Now, not all legumes are pulses. The only ones considered pulses are the ones that are harvested for dry grain. There are other legumes for example green beans or peas which we all know, which are mostly used as vegetables or peas. When they are used in the vegetables form they are not pulses because only the dry once are called pulses.
There are also other legumes that we all know such as soya beans and ground nuts which are used for oil. They also are not considered pulses but they are legumes. There are also other pulses like Alfalfa (lucerne) which are used for cover crop for livestock. So the only ones that we call pulses are the ones that are harvested and used in the dried form.
The common varieties we know in The Gambia are cowpeas and pigeon peas. They are found everywhere and they are very commonly known. In fact, in the world, there are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of pulses. If you go in to the shops you will find kidney beans, you will find black beans, different types of lentils … there are so many different types of pulses in the world. But in The Gambia, the common ones are the cowpeas also known as the black-eyed peas and pigeon peas.

BAJ:  Can you explain why pulses are important?
FAOR: Pulses are important on several fronts and this was why the world community – we felt it was important to draw particular attention to pulses. Pulses are very important and let me highlight four areas: nutrition, food security, Agriculture and climate change.
I will start with nutrition. Pulses are an excellent source of protein. In terms of weight, pulses contain between 20 to 25 percent protein which is really high. And the quality of the protein like all plant-based protein, it needs to be eaten with a cereal to become a complete protein. But, it is an excellent and cheap source of protein when you compare it with animal sources of protein.
Pulses have a low fat content which is really good for those who are trying to remain healthy and combat obesity. Pulses also have zero cholesterol and the fat it contains is vegetable fat. Pulses are also considered among the types of foods with low glycaemic content which means that when they enter the blood stream they don’t have such a shock raising your sugar levels in the bloodstream very quickly. So it is really considered a very good source of energy foods.
Pulses are also an excellent source of dietary fiber. Studies have shown that a diet that is high in fiber reduces the risks of cancer, reduces the risks of heart diseases and reduces the risks of developing high blood pressure and also combat obesity. So, it is really an important source of food and extremely important for nutrition.
Pulses also have high level of important micro-nutrients. Here, we are talking about minerals such as iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and zinc which are all really important for human health. For example, iron and zinc are particularly important for women and children who maybe prone to anaemia.
Pulses are also very high in B-vitamins especially (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6 and folate) which are extremely important for the nervous system of our bodies. So, in a nutshell, for nutrition, pulses are really an important food.
Food Security
On the food security front, you know food security has several pillars. It has the pillar of Food availability; the pillar of Food access; the pillar of stable food sources (or resilience); and the pillar of Food utilization (food quality and food safety).
Pulses contribute to every single aspects of food security. We just talked about the nutrition beat. Another aspect is they contribute to improving peoples` access to other foods. Why? - Because somebody who grows pulses can sell them on the market and get income to buy other foods. So, they improve a farmer`s ability to access food. Pulses also contribute to improving stability of food supply. Why? - Because they are dry and they can be stored for a very very long time. If they are stored properly, they can last for a very long time and that allows the farmer as well as all those who buy pulses to have access to food for a very longtime even in time when no food is being harvested immediately. There are also pulses such as pigeon peas which can be cultivated successfully in conditions of very poor soil and low water availability. Now, when you talk about a region such as where we are in the Sahel that really is an important aspect. Because there are times when the soils are in poor condition and you don’t have enough water and there are some crops that resist such harsh weather conditions and do extremely. And finally, the crop residues from pulses can also be used as an important high protein source of food for livestock. We know that livestock also contribute significantly to our nutrition. So for food security, pulses are really really important for those reasons and am sure other reasons that I have not commented on.
The third aspect why pulses are important is for agriculture and there again, in a number of ways. Pulses improve soil fertility and reduce the need for chemical fertilizer. How do they do this? Because pulses are legumes and legumes have this particular feature where they are able to fix nitrogen from the air together with certain type of bacteria and it is available in the soil for the plant to grow. We know that a lot of the fertilizers we are purchasing is just to add nitrogen to the soil, to add phosphorus to the soil and to add potassium. Those are the key. There are others as well but those are the key. So, you can imagine … legumes attract nitrogen from the air and fix it in to the soil. So, you don’t have to add as much nitrogen to the soil. And the second compound is phosphorus. There are some pulses that have the ability to free phosphorus that is available in the soil. A lot of plants cannot readily do that but there are some pulses that have the capability to free phosphorus available in the soil and make it available to a growing plant.
Still on agriculture – the other aspect that pulses contribute to is improving soil fertility. The organic matter content – the amount of vegetable matter that is present in the soil is extremely important. It improves the ability of the soil to retain water; it improves the structure of the soil so that plant roots can grow properly; it improves the amount of healthy and useful bacteria and fungi that are available in the soil and important for healthy plant growth. Having vegetables matter from pulses enabled the quality of the soil to be improved. So, that is another very very important aspect. So, you can see for nutrition, for food security, for agriculture, pulses are really really important.
Another aspect that makes pulses particularly important is their potential to contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change. Now, why is this? Pulses are very diverse in nature. The biodiversity, the genetic diversity of pulses is very wide. So, what does this allow as far as climate change is concerned? It allows for the possibility to adapt either through breeding – you know you can select from these very broad, diversity that exist in pulses. You can select from some strains that perhaps can tolerate very high temperature or strains that can do very well with very little water. So, they are an important tool for us in adapting to climate change and making available more climate resilient varieties of pulses. As you know, they also reduce the need for us to use chemical fertilizers. Why is this important for us from the perspective of climate change? The manufacture of chemical fertilizers is energy intensive and emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and their overuse is thus detrimental to the environment. But if we use less chemical fertilizers it means that we are also using less energy and thus cutting down on the emitting of greenhouse gases. Another important aspect is the issue of Carbon sequestration: Many pulses promote higher rates of accumulation of soil carbon than do cereals or grasses. So, for those reasons and others that I could touch on due to limited time, pulses also contribute to our fight in mitigating and adapting to climate change. 

BAJ:  Madam, let me now take you back to the declaration of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses by the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. What necessitated this move?
FAOR: It was needed becausePulses are part of the food culture and standard diet in all parts of the world. There is no corner of the world that doesn`t produce or consume pulses. The declaration of 2016 as the international year of pulses is an acknowledgement that there is a lot more than we could do. The potential for increasing the use of pulses/ the production of pulses is still huge. It is really a recognition that pulses can be important in our fight against hunger; pulses are important in our fight against poverty especially rural poverty because pulses can be grown relatively inexpensively. You can image growing something that doesn’t need too much fertilizer and doing well. For many of the resource-poor farmers, this is a treasure. Also, because of the nutritional qualities we have talked about alongside other benefits, the UN felt it is really important to concentrate efforts, to raise awareness and also promote research. Because, in fact, what is known is that, in the world, we haven’t documented all the different varieties of pulses that exist. We have not. There is a lot of research that still needs to be done on the full benefits of pulses. We know of some. We know just quite a few but we know that we just crack the surface. So, the international year of pulses was really an effort to bring about awareness that we have a little treasure here.  We have a little treasure that we should pay more attention to at both global and national levels. At both levels, we should really say okay how can we really focus on promoting the production, storage and marketing of pulses to benefit our populations and to improve our efforts to meet the Agenda 2030. 

BAJ:  Your agency – FAO was nominated to facilitate the implementation of the year in collaboration with governments and all other relevant stakeholders. Can you elaborate more on the objectives of the year?
FAOR: FAO was asked to lead this effort in view of our mandate. As you know, FAO leads the UN efforts to eradicating hunger by sustainably improving food security through improved agricultural value chains, including inclusive markets, improved nutrition and sustainable management of our natural resource including forestry, fisheries, water and our land. And all of these really, the overall focus is on reducing poverty and eradicating poverty in the world and we know the important role that women and youth need to play if we are to achieve this. And we know that especially in Africa and the world over, the production of pulses is mainly done by women. So, we need this as a tool for supporting women empowerment. So, FAO has put a particular emphasis this year on raising awareness. FAO together with partners and other stakeholders have produced reference materials and have supported producers, marketers and researchers in pulses throughout the world. This effort will continue as we together work to reach the SDG targets.
Food Fair (pulses)

BAJ:  The Gambia Government through the Ministry and Department of Agriculture (DoA) in partnership with your organization plans to mark the IYP at the KMC grounds in the Form of a Food Fair. Tell us more about the significance of this activity?
FAOR: The food fair is seen as a culmination of some activities that we have already been doing. DOA with support from FAO has just completed a Technical Cooperation project promoting cowpea production in The Gambia. This particular project (funded by FAO) focused on building the capacity of smallholder farmers to practice Integrated Pest Management in cowpea production. Why is it important? One of the key challenges for cowpeas is the pest. They tend to be quit susceptible to pests. The proper management of pest can make a difference between a very low yield and a very high yield. So, FAO supported the smallholder farmers [and the DOA was at the forefront of this effort and FAO provided them with technical support] to be able to learn and adopt environmentally-friendly ways of managing pest so that the yields that they get per hectare can high. Again, through this project, the Food Technology Services Unit of the DoA also developed different types of recipes using cowpeas. So, the food fair is seen as a culmination of these because it is going to feature different ways of preparing cowpeas and other pulses. It will also showcase some of the recipes that have been developed by the Food Technology Services Unit of the DoA as well as other dishes that are prepared from pulses around the world. We know that all around Africa there are many different ways of preparing cowpeas. So, the Food Fair is a bit of a celebration of this very important food and it will bring together stakeholders to see all the different nutritious ways to prepare pulses dishes.

BAJ:  So, before we take leave of you, has a date been set for the Food Fair? 
FAOR:  It is expected to be held in February 2017. The Food Technology Services Unit of the DoA is leading the initiative.

BAJ:  Thank you so much for granting us this interview.
FAOR:  You are very welcome.     

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