The contribution of pulses in agrifood system

Dishes of pulses properly stocked for customers. PHOTO | Alice Maro, FAO Tanzania.

By Dr. Nyabenyi Tipo*

Pulses have a strong history of nourishing people around the world for centuries. Along with the early cereal grains, pulses were among the first crops cultivated as far back as 11,000 years ago.

According to various reports, pulses take up 12 percent of the perennial crop production in Tanzania and are an important food and cash crop for many farmers globally. The pulses sector in Tanzania is a potentially profitable value chain for all actors, but development is constrained by price volatility, insecure supply, weakly organized small-scale producers, and limited extension service delivery.

Tanzania is experiencing a triple burden of malnutrition including eating too much, eating too little, not eating enough vitamins and minerals, and nutrition-related Non-Communicable Diseases. Despite high food production in Tanzania, animal-source foods and micronutrient-rich foods are not sufficiently consumed. Micronutrient deficiencies such as iron and zinc are also common problems affecting mainly adolescent girls, children under five, and women of reproductive age. A high level of micronutrient malnutrition has implications for the attainment of twelve of the 17 SDGs including SDG 2.

The Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey (2016) indicated that about 58 percent of children were anaemic, percent having moderate anaemia. Higher prevalence was observed among children aged between 6 and 24 months compared to older ones. The prevalence of anaemia among women aged between 15 and 49 years was 45 percent in 2015–16, which is very high, with variations across the regions.

However, the prevalence was much higher among pregnant women (57 percent than for non-pregnant women (44 percent). Pregnant teenagers (15 to 19 years of age) had a much higher prevalence of anaemia compared to other age groups. Iron deficiency is the main contributing factor for the observed high prevalence of anaemia, mainly due to the low intake of foods containing iron in a bioavailable form. It is possible that other population groups, for example men, the elderly, and adolescents, are equally affected; however, there is limited data available for these population groups. Available information indicates that poverty, food insecurity, unhealthy diets, and poor infant, and young child feeding practices at the household level are the main drivers of high rates of malnutrition.

Nowadays, in some cultures, pulses have a stigma of being a “poor man’s food” and are replaced by meat once people can afford meat. This has gone far where in some communities there is a myth people grow up being told to eat too many pulses such as beans (maharagwe) causes people to lose their sight or ability to see clearly. Little is known about the contribution that pulses can bring to health, food security, nutrition, and weight management.

Pulses’ rich nutritional components are suitable for people with diabetes, may reduce the risks of coronary heart disease, reduce the risk of neural tube defects, help prevent anaemia, may contain anti-cancer properties, and prevent cognitive decline. Available information indicates that, in Tanzania, pulses are the second-largest source of human food after cereals, often consumed as a relish with cereal staples. In some pulses such as cowpea and beans, fresh leaves and twigs are also consumed as green leafy vegetables.

FAO works with local and international stakeholders to increase the production and encourage the consumption of bio-fortified bean (JESCA beans) varieties which are rich in iron and zinc, to contain the high levels of anaemia in Tanzania. To increase awareness of the benefits of pulses through Food-based strategies, among the released varieties, JESCA varieties have been promoted in Kigoma, Kagera, Iringa Njombe and Songwe.

Between 2020, and now, FAO supported six districts in Kagera Region and distributed over 7 tonnes of bio-fortified bean seeds to farmers in 20 villages and 15 schools. During this agricultural production season, FAO procured and distributed High Iron reach Beans (JESCA) in 100 schools in the Southern Highlands Agro-ecological zone (Iringa Njombe and Songwe). Farmers and schools were also trained in good agricultural practices and demonstrations on cooking. The overall results of this were an improvement in household food and nutrition security and income.

FAO Country Representative -Tanzania