COULD legumes be the key to food production sustainability and climate change resilience? They consume less than half the non-renewable energy of traditional cereals, they can survive harsh conditions like drought and they improve soil health by fixing nitrogen.
On this, World Pulses Day, February 10, Dr Christopher Ochieng Ojiewo, principal scientist at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Nairobi, Kenya, asks the question “What lessons can we learn from legume farmers in Africa?”.
He is a seed systems expert and coordinates the AVISA Project (Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa).
For 12 years the Tropical Legumes initiative worked to develop and distribute high-yielding, climate-resilient legume varieties to millions of poor farmers in drought-prone areas of Africa.
The results have been life-changing and include increasing farmers’ yield and income, as well as strengthening their food security.
As the risks from climate change increase for farmers across the world, our agriculture and food systems will need to adapt to sustainable production if they are to survive.
Could legume crops be the way forward in delivering multiple advantages in line with sustainability principles?
The advantages of legumes:
- When grown in rotation with other crops, they can break cycles of pests and diseases
- Can ‘unlock’ phosphorus for other crops to use and have a unique ability to take nitrogen from the air and transfer it to soil – a process known as ‘nitrogen fixation.’ They can therefore provide a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to fertilizers
- Release high-quality organic matter into the soil and facilitate soil nutrient circulation and water retention
- Contribute to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, as they release 5–7 times less GHG per unit area compared with other crops
- Allow the sequestration of carbon in soils to assist in slowing or reversing atmospheric CO2 pollution and mitigating or reversing global warming
- Induce a saving of fossil energy inputs in the system thanks to N fertilizer reduction, corresponding to 277 kg ha−1 of CO2 per year
- Could be introduced in modern cropping systems to increase crop diversity and reduce use of external inputs
- Have high potential for conservation agriculture, being functional either as growing crop or as crop residue
The Tropical Legumes initiative:
- Involved approximately 25 million farmers across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and helped them replace older legume varieties – some 20, 30, or even 50 years old – that were susceptible to drought, pests and disease.
- Was 12-year, $67 million initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that was implemented across 15 African countries by national partners and three international CGIAR research organisations: the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
- Targeted three main areas: (1) developing high-yielding and climate-resilient legume varieties; (2) improving ‘seed systems’ that deliver the varieties directly to farmers; and (3) strengthening the capacity of breeding programs so they were able to develop the varieties faster and more efficiently.
- Strategically invested in the food legume crops that African farmers depend on the most for their consumption and income, including groundnut, common bean, cowpea, chickpea, pigeon pea and soybean.
- Leveraged the experience of the private sector, crop science initiatives and the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform – adopting their approaches and tools to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
- Enhanced understanding of food legume genetics. With access to richer genetic information breeders were able to develop more varieties at a quicker pace to meet evolving demands and needs.
- The gains of the Tropical Legumes initiatives are now being consolidated by a new project, Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa (AVISA), which is building on the experience of its predecessor to continue enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of breeding programs and seed systems.
World Pulses Day, February 10, is a designated United Nations global event to recognize the importance of pulses (chickpeas, dry beans, lentils, dry peas and lupins among others) as a global food.