It's a good time to be a chickpea - or a lentil. The United Nations have designated 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, to draw attention to a vitally important food group across the world, raising awareness of both the nutritional and the sustainability aspects of crops that produce pulses.
Where there's a UN awareness drive, there's a special ambassador. This time the choice is particularly special for Australia, as the Special Ambassador for Pulses 2016 is none other than an Australian researcher based at the University of Western Australia (UWA).
Professor Kadambot Siddique is UWA's Agriculture chair; in his 30 years working in agriculture he's developed chickpea varieties that have since put Australia's chickpea industry on the global stage. In fact, some say Australia grows the best chickpeas in the world.
Just last week Morocco hosted the 2016 International Conference on Pulses for Health, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture in Drylands, where world experts convened to drive work in pulse production worldwide, from the lab through to the field and the market.
At this conference, Professor Siddique received his designation as special ambassador, so we got in touch to ask a few questions.
What does it mean to be Special Ambassador in this capacity?
My task is to help support the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in raising public awareness on the important contribution of pulses to sustainable cropping system, food and nutritional security.
Pulses play an important role in farming systems for crop diversification, nitrogen fixation and availability of other nutrients in the system. They also play an important role for human health, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and neuro-degenerative diseases.
The year will create a unique opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain that would better utilise pulse-based proteins, further global production of pulses, better utilise crop rotations and address the challenges in trade and consumption.
What role does science have in boosting pulse production in developing countries?
Major yield gaps exist between on-farm and potential yields as shown by a large number of studies across pulse production regions.
Enhanced pulse production creates opportunities for local value-added processing. It stimulates domestic demand and provides off-farm employment and income for poor residents in rural areas, especially young people and women.
However, technology transfer to resource-poor farming situations, where most pulses are produced, remains a major bottleneck to meeting global demand. There are tremendous opportunities to accelerate pulse production and productivity through the use and application of innovative technologies.
Which are your proudest achievements in your day-to-day work?
My research through the UWA Institute of Agriculture mainly focuses on the adaptation of crops to cope with stresses such as drought or salinity, and the various traits involved. We need to provide our farmers with the tools to improve yield in a changing and variable climate.
My PhD at The University of Western Australia was the first PhD on chickpeas in Australia. I examined the adaptation of chickpeas to local conditions and developed a number of new pulse varieties for Australian farmers (e.g. chickpea, lentil and grass pea). I certainly feel proud to receive a bag of chickpeas from farmers who grow the varieties which I have developed.
My proudest achievements are in capacity building. Access to information in something many of us take for granted. Gaps in agricultural development and productivity in developing countries can be closed with training next generation agricultural graduates and scientists, new equipment and study tours.
We can build capacity by giving farmers the knowledge to meet demand by selecting improved crop varieties and better management practices.
Which is your favourite dish featuring pulses?
Some of my favourite dishes are made from pulses, and my wife Almaz is such a good cook that this is a tough question!
Our interview was conducted over email and has been shortened and edited for clarity.