Pulses: The heartbeat of nutritious, sustainable agriculture
February 11, 2019
Most Americans are not familiar with the term “pulses” even though they consume nearly $1 billion of pulses and pulse products annually. 
Pulses are the dried, edible seeds of legume plans. Common varieties include dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas and lentils. (Green beans and green peas are considered vegetable crops, not pulses.) There are 11 types of pulses, each having many varieties. They are a truly global crop, grown by farmers of all scales in 175 countries.
In 2019, the United Nations designated February 10th as World Pulses Day in recognition of growing global enthusiasm for a remarkable crop that improves the health and productivity of humans, animals and the environment.
So how does the humble pulse achieve this remarkable feat?
Pulses for healthy people
Pulses are an accessible and affordable source of plant-based protein and micro-nutrients, including folate, iron, calcium, B-vitamins and antioxidants. Pulses score low on the glycemic index and increase satiety, making them ideal for people struggling with diabetes and weight management.
Pulses for healthy animals
Pulses can be grown specifically for animal fodder and the crop residue of pulses grown for human consumption also provides nutritious food for animals.
Pulses for a healthy planet
Pulses are an important part of a sustainable cropping system. They fix nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for water and improving soil health. Many pulse species are drought-tolerant, making them an ideal crop for dryland regions.
A Global Product
The global pulse value chain is complex, encompassing millions of small-scale farmers who produce for personal consumption and local markets, as well as large-scale commercial farmers producing for export markets and food companies. The world’s largest pulse producers are India and Canada. Below, a farmer from each country describes how their productivity, profitability and sustainability have improved thanks to agricultural extension programs, advanced seed technologies, public-private partnerships, and trade.
- Drought-tolerant seeds enable me to be productive even during dry seasons. An extension agent showed me how to keep my soils healthy by rotating my pulse and maize crops.
- Biofortified lentils give my family access to essential nutrients such as iron and zinc and the crop residue is nutritious fodder for my cattle.
- Thanks to affordable loans and weather index insurance, I can invest in technologies and inputs to increase my pulse production.
- Through a farmer cooperative, I get higher prices for my pulse crops and use the income to pay for food, school fees and health care.
- Regional trade agreements have opened up new market opportunities so I can sell different pulse varieties to neighboring countries.
- Through online extension programs, I learned that pulses enhance the health of my soil, enabling me to use fewer inputs and less water.
- Thanks to advanced seed breeding techniques, I can grow locally adapted varieties of pulses that are capable of withstanding pests and bean diseases.
- Collaboration between pulse growers, the transportation industry and government has improved my access to reliable transportation to domestic and international markets.
- Public education campaigns highlighting the health benefits of pulses have driven up demand for pulse-based foods.
- Accurate and timely information on global pulse prices, regulatory changes, and crop forecasts help me get the best price for my crop and plan effectively for the next growing season.
To see the full story on pulses, see the 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP Report), pages. 26-27. “Pulses Production Expanding as Consumers Cultivate a Taste for U.S. Lentils and Chickpeas,” Jennifer K. Bond, USDA Economic Research Service, February 6, 2017.