Sustainability and Global Food Systems

Sustainability and Global Food Systems

Sustainability and Global Food Systems

September 18, 2016 by Brian Colwell

Farmers and ranchers are already facing devastating impacts from the realities of Climate Change – including severe floods, extreme heat and drought, and increased pressures from changing disease and pest patterns.

Global Food Systems are under attack. We need Sustainability NOW!

Major advantages of conservation agriculture are:

  • Reduced wind and water erosion of topsoil
  • Increased water use efficiency through improved water infiltration and retention
  • Increased nutrient use efficiency through enhanced nutrient cycling and fertilizer placement adjacent to seed
  • Reduced oscillation of surface soil temperatures
  • Increased soil organic matter and diverse soil biology
  • Reduced fuel, labor and overall crop establishment costs, and
  • More timely operations


It’s a win-win situation for the environment AND the economy when it comes to introducing legumes into agricultural systems, says new research, but the

“…ability to reverse negative trends is jeopardized by Climate Change as food legumes are mostly grown rainfed and are being exposed to increasingly variable and extreme weather.”

That’s bad news, because Legumes are a #4IR “Smart Food”

Good for you, good for the planet, and good for the smallholder farmer. Pulses like chickpea and pigeonpea contribute towards the new Sustainable Development Goals to reduce poverty and hunger, improve health and gender equity, promote responsible consumption and help adapt to climate change.

Pulses are an amazing protein and might save the Planet!

Beans and Sustainable Agriculture:

  1. Lower Carbon footprint
  2. Water (In)Security
  3. Nitrogen Fixing & Soil Microbial Diversity

1. Lower Carbon footprint:


Pulses have a lower carbon footprint in production than most animal sources of protein. In fact, one study showed that one kilogram of legume only emits 0.5kg in Co2 equivalent, whereas 1kg of beef produces 9.5 kg in CO2 equivalent .

The very low contribution of legumes is well illustrated in the graph below. It shows that lentils are one of the foodstuff that contributes the least emissions, far fewer than turkey, salmon or other common sources of protein.

How do Beans reduce Carbon Emissions?

  • Low water use results in low energy use.
  • Reduces nonrenewable energy in the entire crop rotation by 22-24%. Pulse-Pulse-Wheat cropping has 34% less carbon footprint compared to a Cereal-Cereal-Wheat cropping pattern.
  • Better farming practices, including use of pulse crops, can lower the average carbon footprint by 24 to 37%.
  • Nitrogen fertilizers contribute to carbon footprint as its energy footprint is over 7.5 times more than other fertilizers such as phosphate and potash.
  • Pulses help reduce use of chemical fertilizers by fixing nitrogen.

2. Water (In)Security:

It’s more efficient to obtain protein from crop products than animal products. Water used to produce 1g protein in milk, eggs and chicken meat is 1.5 times, for mutton it is 3.3 times and for beef 6 times more than that used for pulses. Crazy.

In addition, many pulses use water differently than traditional farming crops. They extract water from shallower depths, leaving deep soil water for the following crop (crop rotation). Water use characteristics of pulses effectively increases the water use efficiency of the entire crop rotation.


3. Nitrogen fixing and soil microbe diversity:

Pulses fix atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing soil bacterias living inside their root systems.

“A 125-year debate on how nitrogen-fixing bacteria are able to breach the cell walls of legumes has been settled. Scientists now report that plants themselves allow bacteria in. The fact that legumes themselves call the shots is a great finding…”

Chickpea leaves 20.4 kg/ha of residual nitrate in the soil after harvesting which is the highest among pulses. Production and application of nitrogen fertilizer accounts for 57% to 65% of the carbon footprint of each crop. Pulses help in efficient use of soil phosphorus by breaking down insoluble phosphates in the soil.

Soil microbe diversity:

Different compounds from pulses feed soil microbes and this benefits overall soil health. Crops grow better in soils with diverse soil organisms as they help break down and cycle nutrients more efficiently.

Crops grow better in soils with diverse soil organisms as they help break down and cycle nutrients more efficiently. Presence of diverse soil organisms tend to ‘crowd out’ disease-causing bacteria and fungi, resulting in healthier plants. Growing pulse crops in rotation enables the other crops to benefit from these large, diverse population of soil organisms.

WOW! I didn’t know beans were so important! 

With Climate Change offering massive disruption to global food and water security, and with legumes both impacted by and impacting agricultural carbon emissions, it’s important to understand WHERE legumes come from, how future production will be impacted by further climate changes, and what’s ALREADY being done.

There are 18 priority dryland cereal and legume farming (agri-food) systems worldwide:

The most important of these systems, in terms of area and population, are found in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The farming systems in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia and East Asia are also important, but dryland cereal and legume crop distribution data show that South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are the most important regions for crop improvement and adapted crop management practices.

The high levels of malnutrition in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa can be addressed in part by nutritious DCL crops, which are often important sources of protein and micronutrients. Biofortification of DCL crops could be an important consideration in these areas. Clearly, the high rural and urban population found in, and depending on, DCL farming system regions suggest the importance of these systems for research and development aimed at improving agriculture and livelihoods.


In the case of the pulses: Chickpea, the common bean, cowpea, faba bean, groundnut, lentil, pigeonpea, and soybean.

“Grain legumes are often referred to as the ‘poor people’s meat,’ …They’re extremely important to those who cannot afford meat, milk or fish to meet their protein needs.”

In Africa, increasing areas of common bean are being sown while areas under mung bean and black gram have increased in South and East Asia. These increases are attributed mainly to the availability of improved varieties, such as shorter duration and more disease-resistant mung bean, rather than any improvements in agronomic management. Africa remains the major producer of cowpea, but there has been no appreciable increase in area sown or yield over the last decade. In contrast, cowpea area and yields have increased in Asia, probably as a result of availability of improved varieties. India is the major producer of pigeonpea, but area and yields have remained relatively stable over the past decade. Myanmar appears to be the only country where pigeonpea area and yields have increased. This has been mainly driven by the export market to neighboring India.

Beans in Africa:

Cowpeas are an important staple in the diets of 200 million Africans, roughly 18 percent of the population. Smallholders devote more land to groundnuts than any other legume in Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 11 million hectares.

Beans are an important legume crop in Zambia, where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and more than 350,000 suffer from food insecurity. Unfortunately, bean production in this African country is severely limited by diseases, insects, low soil fertility and drought.

In the east African nations of Malawi and Tanzania, chemical fertilizer is extremely expensive and supplies are extremely limited. Consequently, the ability of pulses to fix soil nitrogen in these regions is critical. Because of poor soil health and drought, these countries stand to reap many benefits from the production of pulses. Bringing improved pulse cultivars to the region is an important step to increase food security and improve health and nutrition.

“…small farmers in Africa are getting two to three times lower production rates than what can be done on research station sites… generally due to under-management – lack of use of improved seeds, poor varieties and suboptimal use of agronomic practices.”

Globally, the area sown to beans has increased primarily due to increases in both Africa and Asia.

The demand-supply gap for the legumes is perpetually increasing widening day-by-day which will lead to a huge shortfall in the supply to the ever increasing global population in coming years. The only option is to maximize the efforts toward developing improved high yielding cultivars possessing resistance/tolerance to the major stresses especially in context of Climate Change.

Moves toward more ecological-based approaches in managing nutrition, weeds, diseases, and pests of food legumes offer prospects for greater inclusion of food legumes in cropping systems.

Although adoption of conservation agriculture is widespread in large-scale commercial agriculture (especially in the cereals), it is only at initial stages in resource-poor smallholder situations. A boost in food legume production by resource-poor farmers is a dire necessity due to static or declining production trends for most of these commodities in developing countries, yet increasing global demand for legume grain.

Technology to substantially increase and stabilize yields of food legumes in most areas is available but its rapid adoption appears restricted by Industrialized Agriculture…



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