Pulses are truly the pulse of life: for the soil, for people and the planet. In our farms they give life to the soil by providing nitrogen. This is how ancient cultures enriched their soils. Farming did not begin with the Green Revolution and synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. Whether it is the diversity-based systems of India, or the three sisters planted by the first nations in North America, or the ancient Milpa system of Mexico, beans and pulses were vital to indigenous agro-ecological systems.
As Sir Albert Howard, known as the father of modern agriculture, writes in An Agricultural Testament, comparing agriculture in the West with agriculture in India: "Mixed crops are the rule. In this respect the cultivators of the Orient have followed nature’s method as seen in the primeval forest. Mixed cropping is perhaps most universal when the cereal crop is the main constituent.
Crops like millets, wheat, barley and maize are mixed with an appropriate subsidiary pulse, sometimes a species that ripens much later than the cereal. The pigeon pea (cajanus indicus), perhaps the most important leguminous crop of the Gangetic alluvium, is grown either with millets or with maize… Leguminous plants are common. Although it was not until 1888, after a protracted controversy lasting 30 years, that Western science finally accepted as proved the important role played by pulse crops in enriching the soil, centuries of experience had taught the peasants of the east the same lesson."
The monocultures promoted by the Green Revolution had a direct impact on the decline of pulse production by displacing biodiversity, and with it depleting soil fertility. Mixed cropping was impossible with the intensive use of chemicals of the Green Revolution. With the change from mixed cropping to monocultures, less pulses were planted, production reduced and with the absence of legumes, nitrogen levels in the soil got depleted.
The Green Revolution ensured India produced more rice and wheat, but our pulses have disappeared from the monoculture fields. Between 1960-61 and 2010-2011, acreage under wheat has gone up from 29.58 per cent to 44.5 per cent and rice from 4.79 per cent to 25 per cent.
Meanwhile, the area under pulses has dropped from 19 per cent to 0.21 per cent, oilseeds from 3.9 per cent to 0.71 per cent, millets from 11.26 per cent to 0.21 per cent. When measured in terms of nutrition per acre and health per acre, Punjab is actually producing less food and nutrition as a result of the Green Revolution.
Pulses fix 150-200kg of nitrogen per hectare. When pulses are removed from farming systems, synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are used. Returning organic matter to the soil also builds up soil nitrogen. A recent study we undertook has shown that organic farming increased nitrogen content of soil between 44 to 144 per cent (depending on the crops grown).
My book, Soil Not Oil, highlights how industrial agriculture is a fossil fuel-based system, and contributes more than 40 per cent of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are contributing to climate change. Nitrogen oxide released by synthetic fertilisers is a GHG which has 300 times more impact than carbon dioxide in destabilising the climate. Nitrogen oxides also react with water in the atmosphere to form acid rain.
Synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are based on fossil fuels and use the same process that also made explosives and ammunitions for Hitler during World War II. Synthetic nitrogen fertilisers started being promoted in agriculture when large stocks of ammonium nitrate munitions, left over from World War II, were marketed for agricultural use.
The energy intensive Haber-Bosch process is used to make ammonia — the feedstock for all synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, as well as for explosives. It uses natural gas to artificially fix nitrogen from the air at a high temperature to produce ammonia.
To make 1kg of nitrogen fertiliser, the energy equivalent to two litres of diesel is used. Energy used during fertiliser manufacture in 2000 was equivalent to 191 billion litres of diesel and is projected to rise to 277 billion litres in 2030. This is a major contributor to climate change, yet largely swept under the rug.
Green Revolution displaced pulses from the fields, and replaced them with Bt cotton and soya monocultures. 11.6 million hectares of Bt cotton were planted in India in 2014. If pulses had been planted on half this land, we would have had an additional 4 million tonnes of pulses available. In 2014, 12.12 million hectares of land were planted with soya instead of growing the 10 million tonnes of pulses we needed. Why are we growing soya for export and importing the pulses we eat?
With the artificially created pulse scarcity, pulses have become unaffordable for many Indians. This artificially created scarcity is being used by the government to import pulses from corporations like Cargill India Pvt Ltd. Today, we are the biggest importers of pulses. And since the rest of the world does not grow the diversity of pulses we grow, what is being imported cannot replace the diversity necessary for the Indian diet.
Large quantities of yellow pea from the US and Canada are imported for billions of dollars. . In 2015-16, India plans to import more than 5 million tonnes of yellow pea from Canada and the US. In 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had audited the pulse imports and had questioned the repeated import of yellow pea stating, "The ministry of consumer affairs and food and public distribution decided in 2008 that the agencies need not go for further contracts of yellow peas, but the Union Cabinet in 2009 decided to allow the agencies to import these. The agencies continued to import even when they had huge unsold stocks, resulting in a loss of Rs 897.37 crore, 75 per cent of the total loss of Rs 1,201.32 crore."
But the loss is not only to the exchequer. Import of yellow pea translates into importing nutritional deficiency for people and the soil, and decline in soil health. Yellow pea has only 7.5 per cent protein compared to indigenous pulses having 20-30 per cent.
2016 is the "International Year of Pulses". It provides an opportunity to remember how important the diversity of our pulses is to the health of the soil and our health. We need to rejuvenate the pulse of life on our farms and our thalis.