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Grain Legumes
Photo: ICRISAT
 
 
Despite an uncertain future, 600 million of the world’s most vulnerable people continue to depend on legume crops such as chickpea, pieonpea and groundnut for food and fodder. A key goal is to leverage the potential of these subsistence crops to generate income and promote international trade.

25% – Africa’s contribution to global groundnut production

25% – India’s share of worldwide legume production

700% – Growth in imports of legumes by India, 2001-2008 

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Frequently described as “poor people’s meat”, crops such as groundnut and chickpea are highly attractive commodities, especially for farmers and urban consumers who cannot afford to purchase meat, dairy or fish products. In Sub-Saharan Africa, legumes supply as much as 60% of the protein consumed by the poor. In South Asia, crops such as pigeonpea are attracting increasing attention from the private sector and from producers who grow the crop for export.


The case for legumes

Rural poverty
Farmers are both consumers and producers of grain legumes and benefit, not only from the food they provide, but also from the crops’ ability to generate income. Legumes yield high-value grain that is priced 2-3 times higher than cereals. They also produce oils, fresh pods, and leafy greens that attract top prices. A wide range of food products is processed locally from these raw materials, creating employment especially for poor women. The stem and leaves, as well as the residue left after oil extraction, are valued as high protein livestock feed. When added to cereal straw, these extracts improve the productivity of livestock that the poor depend upon for draft power, milk, meat and cash.


Food security
Grain legumes are especially important to people who can’t afford the cost of milk, meat or fish. Productivity gains achieved through crop improvement research increase the quantity of grain legumes available to the rural poor. Farmers often fit legumes into underused production niches as intercrops, relay crops, and end-of-season second crops, thereby producing larger amounts of food from less land. Growing more also means less risk – for example, when drought devastates a cereal crop, late-flowering legumes often escape, rescuing the farm family’s food supply. When grown in rotation with other crops, grain legumes can disrupt weed and disease cycles, as well as enrich the soil with nitrogen, reducing farmers’ vulnerability to crop failures.


Nutrition and health
Grain legumes are rich in protein, oil, and such micronutrients as iron and zinc – all of which tend to be deficient in the diets of the poor. Calcium, folate and provitamin A are other nutritional characteristics of legumes. They supply amino acids that are lacking in cereals, sharply raising protein quality when eaten together. High iron and zinc content is especially beneficial for women and children at risk for anemia. The exceptional palatability of grain legumes is also important; severely malnourished children lose their appetites, so peanut butter and chickpea pastes are often used as base ingredients in emergency famine relief foods.


Natural resources
Grain legumes fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, essentially making their own fertilizer. This reduces both the cost and the environmental impacts of chemical fertilizer use and manufacturing. Improving this trait will strengthen farming systems while also increasing food supplies and incomes. When grain legumes are added to farming systems at different points in a cropping cycle, the period of time when the land is protected by leafy cover is extended, reducing soil erosion. Grain legumes added to farming systems also increase the effective capture, productive use, and recycling of water and nutrients (especially end-of-season residual soil moisture in maize, rice and wheat fallows). By enriching livestock diets, grain legumes also boost crop-livestock mixed farming systems, which are more sustainable than crop-only or livestock-only systems.

Photo: ICRISAT
Chickpea: This highly adaptable food and forage crop is cultivated in many different cropping systems and is grown more widely than any other legume except soybean. Desi chickpeas are by far the most prominent, accounting for close to 80% of global production. 

Full profile on Chickpea.

Photo: ICRISAT
Groundnut: Groundnut is currently grown on about 24 million hectares worldwide. Global production (2009) totaled 36.5 million tons, 95 percent of which occurred in developing countries. Production is concentrated principally in Asia (64%) and Africa (28%). 

Full profile on Groundnut.

Photo: ICRISAT
Pigeonpea: Pigeonpea is produced in all tropical and semitropical regions of the world and is grown either as an annual or as a perennial crop. Production takes place on estimated at 4.6 million hectares. About 82% of all pigeon pea production takes place in India. The Indian subcontinent, Eastern and Southern Africa and Central America, in that order, represent the world's main producing regions. 

Full profile on Pigeonpea.

Production constraints

  • In some regions grain legume production has shifted to less-productive environments. As a consequence, other staple crops frequently receive greater and more favorable policy support.
  • Inadequate seed production systems and lack of access to seed by smallholder producers inhibits the adoption of improved varieties. Despite the need, private sector seed companies and public sector seed authorities outside of South Asia are either reluctant or unable to invest in grain legume seed systems.
  • In some regions the per capita demand for legumes is decreasing. As countries develop and become wealthier, legumes compete with other foods, especially animal products and easy-to-prepare processed foods.
  • Grain legumes are susceptible to climate change; both drought and heat can severely limit production and in many regions, especially Africa, farmers frequently face shorter, less reliable growing seasons.


Legumes are nutritious commodities that are often used as a substitute for more expensive sources of protein, vitamins and micronutrients. They are high-value, multi-purpose crops that provide food for the poor, as well as forage and feed for livestock.

Photo: ICRISAT
Desi chickpea nearing harvest.
Photo: ICRISAT
Protein-rich groundnuts.
Photo: ICRISAT
Pigeonpea breeding.
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