There’s a saying in Kenya: If you haven’t eaten “ugali” (a common maize-based stiff porridge dish), then you haven’t eaten.
Substitute ugali for rice, cassava, matoke (starchy bananas), sweet or Irish potato or any other starch staple and it reflects the status that many cultures place on carbohydrates. Indeed, according to UNFAO, cereals and starchy roots form the center piece of diets around the globe.
UNFAO has compounded the importance of these high-energy foods above others by measuring the rise and fall of global hunger by caloric intake.
But this focus that places starch as “king” is contributing to global nutrition problems.
As the importance placed on starch has risen, favored especially in developing countries for the energy it provides, our global agricultural systems have become focused on the production of a handful of starchy crops – maize, wheat and rice, resulting in pushing more nutritious foods, such as pulses and vegetables, lower down the food chain.
While carbohydrates do provide much-needed calories, they do not provide all the nutrients needed for a healthy body alone. Humans need a mix of macronutrients, micronutrients and energy, which they can only get through eating a balanced diet – a mix of vegetables and fruit, dairy products, meat and pulses, fats and sugars as well as starchy foods and cereals.
Across the globe, malnutrition continues to be a public health burden because populations lack access to the foods needed for a balanced diverse diet. Nowhere is this more so than in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
Malnutrition in both its constituents – protein–energy malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies –continues to be a major public health burden across the continent. 2015 data of FAO estimates that about 220 million people in Africa are calorie deficient. According to the executive summary of the Lancet 2013 series on maternal and child nutrition, in Africa, only small improvements in stunting are anticipated on the basis of present trends, with the number of affected children increasing from 56 to 61 million. In fact, of the 34 countries that account for 90% of the global burden of malnutrition, 22 (64%) are in Africa. Malnutrition manifests itself early in children (between 6 months and 2 years of age) and extends way into adulthood, not just impacting on individual health, but on the development prospects of entire countries.
Why? Because the diets of vulnerable populations are frequently devoid of key nutrients such as protein leading to protein–energy malnutrition; and essential micronutrients such as iron and zinc, further exacerbating the problem.
If we are to eradicate all forms of malnutrition, then we need to do more than promote diverse diets, we need to promote agricultural diversification.
These vulnerable populations not only grow their own food for the household consumption, they rely on agriculture for their livelihoods and income. Research has shown that financial constraint is one of the greatest causes of poor dietary status among marginalised communities, leading to inferior food in quantity, quality and diversity.
Agriculture needs to find a balance – to move away from its overwhelming focus on staples and focus more on integrating nutrition-rich pulses, fruits and vegetables.
If there’s one class of food that has the power to help turn the tide on malnutrition, it is pulses. Such is their importance as a primary source of protein (more than 21-26 per cent) and other essential nutrients, the UN has even declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.
Not only are they nutritionally rich, they are already the main source of protein for many poor populations where meat, the only food higher in protein, is not an option due to increasing and erratic food prices.
Beans, for example, are a nutritionally and economically important food crop in Africa. Besides providing nutrients such as multifaceted carbohydrates, elevated proteins, dietary fibre, minerals, and vitamins, they also contain rich variety of polyphenolic compounds with prospective health benefits. Beans can thus help address stunting, anemia, and contribute in decreasing the risks of chronically degenerative diseases.
Another pulse, chickpea is an important pulse crop grown and consumed all over the world, especially in the Afro-Asian countries and is a good source of carbohydrate and protein. Chickpea has significant amounts of all the essential amino acids, which can be complemented by adding cereals to the daily diet. They are also rich in nutritionally important unsaturated fatty acids, and a good source of important vitamins.
In Africa we are slowly seeing the growth of these and other important pulses like cowpea, faba bean, lentil, and pigeon pea; and grain legumes like soybean and groundnut – partly due to research under the CGIAR Grain Legume Research Program, regional partners like the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) and National Agricultural Research Institutes in Africa. And partly due to forward thinking countries, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, favoring policies that promote pulses in agriculture such as crop intensification programs, sustainable seed systems, and the prioritizing of pulses as food security crops.
If agriculture is to fulfill its fundamental responsibility to deliver nutrition there needs to be a shift in the way the world values calories above nutrition. A value that needs to seep down from global development to farmers and consumers.
The call for investments in pulse research to drive this change through improved varieties, market creation, the development of seed systems and nutrition education, among others, is loud and clear.
Perhaps in the future, the saying will be: If you haven’t eaten pulses then you haven’t eaten!
Professor Ruth Oniang’o, PhD is a renowned leader in food and nutrition issues. Founder of the Rural Outreach Program and the Editor-in-Chief of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND) in Nairobi, Kenya, she has been working to improve nutrition for women in Africa for decades. In 2014 she was listed as one of 30 most innovative women in food and drink by Fortune Magazine.