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
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.
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.
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.