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Opinion: Pulses and the future of food

India’s decision to impose tariffs to support its farmers is creating dangerous uncertainty

The rest of the world is realizing what the pulse industry has known for decades: pulses are the future of food.

Consumers and governments around the world now look to pulses as an important part of action plans to improve the global food system and address nutritional and environmental challenges.

Increasing pulse consumption is critical to meeting growing global protein needs. Pulses are an important part of cropping systems that diversify revenue sources for farmers, and pulses make a significant contribution to affordable and sustainable food production systems.

Through collaboration on events like 2016 International Year of Pulses, the global pulse industry has been successful in raising the profile of pulses. Pulse Canada is proud to have played a leadership role in shaping the path forward for pulses.

This increasing emphasis on pulses is changing the industry at every level. While traditional demand remains, new uses for pulses are emerging.

Consumers are exploring ways to make pulses a bigger part of the foods they prepare at home as well as those that they buy in supermarkets and at restaurants.

Food companies, including traditional cereal foods and animal meat and milk companies, are increasing their use of pulse ingredients to meet consumer demand for affordable food that is healthy for them and good for the planet.

Farmers and governments are focused on how they will capitalize on demand for pulses.

The global pulse market is influenced not only by the commercial forces of supply and demand (trade) but also by government directions (policy) that can complement but also override commercial market direction. Perhaps no government is having a bigger impact on the pulse industry than the Government of India.

India has chosen to focus on supporting its farmers through a market support price for pulses and border controls in the form of import duties and quota restrictions. These actions have had the unintended effect of driving down international pulse prices and are also impacting the pulse-planting decisions of farmers around the world.

What started as a method of price support for India’s farmers has become the focus of a discussion on forecasts for food security. Global pulse plantings are presently forecast to undergo a significant reduction in 2018. Analysts are predicting that Canada alone may reduce seeded area by one million acres of peas and one million acres of lentils.

Food production the world over is subject to the variability of climate during the growing season and at harvest. Science and technology cannot yet fully remove the negative impact of pests and plant diseases.

When most of the world’s pulses are grown in areas that rely on rainfall, the phrase ‘rain makes grain’ will remain the dominant explanation for pulse surpluses and pulse shortages the world over.

Given what is happening now in the global pulse market, governments should be discussing whether there is a policy-induced drain on areas seeded to pulses, and if there are ways to mitigate the impact of policy on pulse-planting decisions and the risk associated with trade with India.

And as a country of rising economic influence, India must recognize the vital role that its domestic pulse policy is playing at the global level.

This is not the time to enter yet another policy debate on the relationship between trade and food security or what constitutes an overreliance on imported food. What is needed in the short term (now) by both the global pulse industry and governments with a vital interest in food security is to focus on implementation of an operational plan that works for the pulse sector.

Pulse production and trade is about more than food security. Pulses are also improving the environmental sustainability of food production systems, addressing global protein needs and contributing to the economic viability of farmers in many countries.

So what is needed? Pulse policies implemented by the Government of India have a global reach as a ‘pulse market maker,’ and a ‘pulse market breaker.’ While only the Indian government can decide how best to support its own farmers, domestic price support for farmers must be undertaken in a manner that is both transparent and predictable.

Without this balance, the uncertain future of domestic policy in India will continue to negatively impact the global pulse market, leading to reduced plantings by farmers in regions such as South Asia, Africa, North America, Eastern Europe and Russia. The inherent risk in global pulse production is being compounded by uncertainty in India’s domestic pulse policy.

From the Canadian perspective, a first and urgent step for India’s government is the development of a transparent system that will help farmers and trade predict changes, up or down, to India’s import duties. The timeline for this is very tight; farmers around the world are already making their 2018 planting decisions.

India must also return to science-based approaches to plant protection policy. Plant protection policies cannot be abused as a tool to limit trade for economic or political reasons as this further erodes the confidence of growers and trade in the global pulse market. Plant protection policies must only be used to address the actual level of risk that imports present to the importing country.

And finally, future changes to India’s policy must respect the WTO Agreement on Agriculture that in Article 5:3 states that additional duties on products ‘tariffed’ shall not be applied to goods “en route on the basis of a contract settled before the additional duty is imposed.”

Pulse trade with India has changed at the very time when the entire world is looking to the food system to deliver on both consumer expectations and social needs like human health and environmental sustainability.

Pulses will inevitably be part of the global strategy to create an affordable and healthy food system that protects the planet’s resources. A more predictable production and trade environment for pulses is in everyone’s interest. Governments and the pulse trade the world over had best move quickly to fix this problem.

2018 should be the year to grow more pulses – not less.

Gordon Bacon is CEO of Pulse Canada, the national association representing growers, traders and processors of Canadian pulse crops.

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