In a country where cows are sacred, millions of Indians get their protein from pulses – lentils, peas and beans. And when they snack, they increasingly have a taste for Kurkure, a salty treat that resembles a Cheeto but is made of chickpea.
India's ever-growing appetite for vegetable-based protein – combined with rising incomes and a growing population – have turned the world's second-most populous country into an importer of pulse crops. This demand has transformed parts of the Canadian Prairies, where lentils and peas have joined canola and wheat in the three-crop rotation used by many farmers.
The number of acres planted with lentils and peas in Saskatchewan has almost doubled since 2002 to an expected 7.5 million acres this year, according to the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers. Sixty-five per cent of the world's lentils are grown in Canada, mainly in Saskatchewan.
"Saskatchewan used to be the breadbasket of the world. Now it's actually the protein basket," said Murad Al-Katib, chief executive officer of Alliance Grain Traders Inc., a Regina-based supplier of lentils, peas and other pulses.
"This is a traditional staple protein for India. Pulses are new to us, but when you look at the Indian subcontinent, pulses are a major source of protein. India is a large producer of pulses, but with the population growth, has become a net importer," Mr. Al-Katib said.
Saskatchewan farmer Tim Wiens began growing pulses about 15 years ago because they were a cash crop that brought better returns than wheat, which was until 2012 marketed through the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly. Pulses proved to be a money maker for his farm, and provided agronomic benefits to the soil and other crops.
"Pulses will add nitrogen back into the soil. They help break disease cycles, they help break insect cycles," he said in a phone interview from the farm his grandfather started in 1924. "There is considerable data that shows there is a yield boost to the following crop after seeding pulses."
The crop thrives in the Prairies' short growing season, and on its dry, fast draining soil. Lentils from Canada and parts of the United States command premium prices in world markets, followed by those grown in the Black Sea region, said Rav Kapoor, CEO of ETG Commodities, the North American wing of specialty crop giant Export Trading Co. Ltd., which has processing plants around the world. The company gained a foothold in North America last year with the purchase of TW Commodities, and cleans, grades and packs pulses with partners at about two dozen plants in Western Canada.
"Canada is the ideal place to grow them," Mr. Kapoor said by phone. "Other countries like Russia and Ukraine have been trying but have not been successful. There is a lot of government support [in Canada] for farmers and exporters to help the trade grow."
ETG exports 250,000 tonnes of Western Canadian lentils and peas a year, 60 to 70 per cent of which goes to India and surrounding countries.
"Demand for pulses is increasing in the Indian subcontinent and of course India is a driving factor," Mr. Kapoor said.
Indian pulse crops on a per-acre basis have been in decline as farming practices and technology have not changed fast enough to keep pace with the larger swings in wet and dry periods that have accompanied climate change, he said. At the same time, demand for vegetarian protein is soaring along with rising incomes and a population has doubled in the past 40 years and is expected to top China's by 2028.
The many pluses of pulses
Pulses are a diverse group of high-protein crops that include lentils, yellow peas, chickpeas, kidney beans and faba beans. (The familiar green pea is considered a vegetable, not a pulse.)
The word pulse comes from the Latin word for porridge or soup, puls.
Lentils are believed to have been first cultivated more than 5,000 years ago in the regions of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.
In Canada, pulses are grown mainly in Saskatchewan, but production is rising in parts of Alberta, Manitoba and B.C. that have dry summers.
U.S. prices for dried beans, peas and lentils have risen by 20 per cent since the start of 2011, compared with a 32-per-cent drop in wheat prices.
Canadian farmers began to grow peas in the 1970s amid a wheat glut that hammered prices.
Pulses earned their place in crop rotation with strong returns and their ability to return beneficial nitrogen to the soil.
Pulses are a nutritious, cheap source of protein that require far less water and other inputs to produce than an equivalent amount of meat-based protein.