It is the 10th of February – World Pulses Day. These small-sized seeds are so power-packed that they deserve to be celebrated on a set day; not only are they rich in nutrients, but they also have the potential of minimizing undesirable climatic changes. Pulses are the dried seeds of leguminous plants and they include; dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, green grams and dried peas among others. So, why are they so important?
Pulses take shorter periods to mature and are not prone to pests compared to other cereals like maize and wheat. They can also do well in medium and low rainfall areas meaning they can be grown almost anywhere in Kenya. There are improved varieties of green grams which can yield up to 18 -90 Kilogram bags per acre each fetching up to Kes 9,000. Kenya produces almost one million metric tonnes of pulses annually of which a fifth is exported.
The East African Grain Council (EAGC) – an NGO that supports grain trade in East & Southern Africa, is promoting growth of pulses through partnerships with 22 county governments by training farmers on best agricultural practices, post harvest handling and marketing.
But all is not rosy, last year farmers in Eastern counties, rushed to plant green grams (Ndengu) after Indian Prime Minister Modi assured President Uhuru Kenyatta that his country would buy all the Kenyan produce. Previously Kenyan farmers used to earn atleast Kes 80Kg in Indian and other export markets but over production in India brought prices down up to Kes 40. For instance Kitui Governor H.E. Charity Ngilu, who had partnered with the Kenya Red Cross to promote production of green grams came under fire from the county residents. However local and international organizations are promising to intervene with the Council of Governors writing to World Food Program for the product to be included in relief food which would guarantee a ready market. There are also proposals to establish mechanisms for the government to buy green grams as maize and wheat are bought by the National Cereals Board (NCPB) and stored in strategic grain reserves. This notwithstanding, we can all agree that the first hurdle was crossed, production. This means the crop could be vital in ensuring food security and nutrition in the country.
According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), pulses are highly nutritious. They are rich in protein, iron, potassium, folate, and both soluble and insoluble fibre. Additionally, they are low in fat and sodium, gluten-free and cholesterol-free. Due to their high fibre content, they have a low glycemic index and, therefore, they are ideal for diabetics. The high fibre content also increases the feeling of satiety, thereby, aiding in weight management. Moreover, the soluble fibre in them lowers the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, therefore, minimizing the risk of coronary heart disease. They contain folate which supports the health of the nervous system and reduces the risks of hearing and vision loss due to ageing, as well as, neural tube defects in a foetus.
Some measures are necessary for enhancing the absorption of nutrients from pulses. For instance, combining pulses with vitamin C-rich foods, such as lemon juice, increase the absorption of the iron in pulses. Also, since pulses have incomplete amino acids, combining them with cereals complements their set of amino acids. Lastly, soaking pulses overnight reduces the anti-nutrients in them, which are also responsible for causing bloating.
What is more, pulses have a low carbon footprint and, as a result, they are favourable to the environment. Pulses have nitrogen-fixing capabilities and, thus, they do not need nitrogen fertilizers which increase the levels of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming) in the atmosphere. For this reason, in addition to their nutrient content, recent research by the EAT-LANCET Commission has recommended doubling pulses intake through a diet known as planetary health diet. The planetary health diet is sustainable as it is good for humans and the planet as well. It involves doubling the intake of pulses, nuts, fruits and vegetables while cutting by half the intake of meats and dairy.
Sofia is a certified Public Health Nutritionist. You can connect with her on Twitter @sofiajomo and LinkedIn – Sofia Jomo