At the Second International Conference on Nutrition last month, the potential of pulses to address the world’s most pressing nutritional challenges was widely recognized.

By Dario Bard

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Speaking at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), an event organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO), Pope Francis raised the diametrically-opposed dual issues of malnutrition in the developing world and obesity in the developed world. For her part, Queen Letizia of Spain stressed that improving nutrition throughout the world’s population is not only a moral imperative, but also an economic one.

“Investing in better nutrition can raise productivity and economic growth, reduce healthcare costs and promote education,” she said.

Both Pope Francis’ and Queen Letizia’s remarks echoed some of the themes developed by the Global Pulses Confederation (CICILS) for the International Year of Pulses.

“In the side and bilateral meetings at ICN2, there was significant discussion about the role of pulses to address not only nutritional needs (both under- and over-nourished populations), but also as a vehicle to increase the livelihoods of smallholder farmers around the globe,” said Dr. Chris Lannon of the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics. Dr. Lannon was in Rome for the event as part of the Private Sector Mechanism (PSM) delegation, representing more than 90 business and private sector entities from around the globe.

Katy Lee of Emerging Ag, another member of the PSM delegation, also observed pulses being mentioned: “The governments of Botswana and Bangladesh used their five minutes on the plenary floor to highlight the important role of pulses in providing nutrition.”

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Photo: Address by His Holiness Pope Francis, FAO Headquarters (Plenary Hall) ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

With respect to the Pope’s message, Lee said, “The remarks of Pope Francis were significant not least because the problems of obesity and malnutrition are already being addressed by pulses, in that they are a significant source of fiber and protein, as well as iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. For this reason, pulses are already included in most ‘food baskets’ and dietary guidelines. The World Food Programme (WFP) for instance includes 60 grams of pulses in its typical food basket, alongside cereals, oils and sugar and salt. However, more needs to be done to encourage awareness of the nutritional value of pulses and how they can help consumers adopt healthier diets.”

“Whether it is affordable, nutritious food in developing countries or new strategies for combatting obesity and blood sugar control in the developed world, pulses can play a role,” said Dr. Lannon, adding that pulses also fit in nicely with the Pope’s call for environmentally sustainable food production.

ICN2 produced two outcomes: the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action.

“Speaking to you on-site from Rome barely a month after ICN2, we are waiting for the UN to make a set of key inter-institutional decisions before we get a real feel for the next steps,” said Lee. “However one thing is for sure—the ‘implementation’ phase of the documents will be heavily reliant on agricultural producers and businesses as key mobilizing forces. Also certain is that the post-ICN2 process will be significant for all of agriculture, and the pulse sector in particular needs to ‘be there.’ The global discussions spinning off from ICN2 over the next year will be a timely way for the sector to engage governments and UN actors in the International Year of Pulses 2016.”

Dr. Lannon also sees opportunities for pulses to play a significant role in several of the recommendations contained in the Framework for Action document. Recommendation 9, for instance, calls for strengthening local food production and processing, especially by smallholder and family farmers, with special attention to be given to women’s empowerment. Farther in the document, Recommendation 21 calls on national campaigns to promote physical activity, dietary diversification, consumption of micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, including traditional local foods and taking into consideration cultural aspects, better child and maternal nutrition appropriate care practices and adequate breastfeeding and complementary feeding, targeted and adapted for different audiences and stakeholders in the food system. Additionally, Recommendation 54 spotlights the importance of working with Codex Alimentarius to implement internationally adopted standards to facilitate trade. And other recommendations offer additional opportunities for the global pulse industry to take an active role in addressing the world’s most pressing nutritional issues.

“There was also recognition that the world is off track to meet the WHO Global Nutrition Targets and the WHO non-communicable disease targets,” said Dr. Lannon. “This is a great opportunity for pulses.”

The PSM delegation’s big moment came at ICN2’s closing session, when its representatives were given the opportunity to address the more than 1,000 people at the event from the same podium that Pope Francis and Queen Letizia had stood behind the day before.

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Photo: Queen Letizia of Spain, ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

“It was the last day of the conference and I was nervous that there would be reduced momentum and fewer participants in the plenary hall,” recounted Lee. “Nevertheless, it was packed full. The three private sector speakers had five minutes each and were captivating and professional. I knew how hard they had worked to be there, and the long two-year journey we had embarked upon to make sure the positive contributions of the agricultural value chain could be heard in what we were originally told would be a ‘government-only’ process.”

The three PSM speakers at the closing session were: David Crean, Vice President Corporate R&D, Mars Incorporated; Marie Konate, CEO, Protein Kissée Là; and Nico van Belzen, Director General, International Dairy Federation.

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