Peas on the Prairie Destined for India
Indian appetites are changing US crop mix
Legumes such as dried peas, lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas fight erosion and replenish life-giving nitrogen, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers. That made Beau Anderson an early convert to pulses onhiswheatandbarleyfarmoutside Williston, North Dakota, where he addedthemtohiscroprotationmore than a decade ago.
There wasn’t much money in it then. Pulses are high in protein and low in fat, but Americans don’t eat a lot of them. Expanding demand for corn ethanol and surging US soybean exports to China helped keep pulses in the background. “When we first started growing lentils, our strategywastobreakevenonthem,” Anderson says.
For him and many other farmers, that calculus has changed. The biofuelsindustryandtheChineseeconomyarestagnant,whichisweighing on demand and prices for US corn and soy. And India, an emerging buyer with a huge appetite for pulses,isbeginningtoassertitselfonthe worldfoodmarket.“Thenextcouple decades could belong to India,” says Erik Norland, an economist with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “It will have a real impact on what farmers choose to grow and on what the world eats.”
Led by India, global demand for US-grown pulses reached $702 million last year, more than double that of a decade ago. “Over 57% of our pulses went to India in 2014,” says Chris Westergard, a wheat farmer in Dagmar, Montana, who devotes about a third of his 5,000 acres to peasandlentils.“Ialwaysknewthey were a big buyer, but I didn’t realise they’d become that important.”
The US is still a small player in the pulse world, and it has competition from other nations. Russia and East Africa have seen exports increase, and Canada’s shipments reached almost $4.2 billion in 2015.
For US pulses to go mainstream, Americans will have to start eating more of them. That’s been a bit of a tough sell: Among their less desirable attributes, dried legumes take a long time to cook and give a lot of people gas, says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “If there is a stable export market, farmers will grow pulses, but it will take a huge education campaign for the public and for chefs to start using them here.”
American farmer Anderson expects to begin planting soon