Enhancing Lentil Production Using Rice Fallows in South Asia

The Challenge

Pulses are part of the traditional diet in South Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Pulses are also the main source of protein for the majority of population in the region, being poor and unable to afford animal foods, and a large number being vegetarian. India alone accounts for nearly one-third of global consumption of pulses and even though India is the largest producer of pulses with 24% share in the global production, it is the largest importer in the world. Similarly, Bangladesh is able to meet only 30% of its pulses demand by domestic production. Nepal also faces a drastic deficit of pulses, largely depending on expensive imports of pulses.

While cereal production globally expanded three-fold over the past 50 years, pulses grew at a very slow pace. India, though a major player in global pulses market, its production is severely compromised by restricted irrigation facilities, outdated seed and crop technologies, and non-supportive policy initiatives. The yield of pulses in India languishes far below that in the developed countries – at 0.6 tonne/hectare (t/ha) versus 1.9 t/ha in Canada (average in 2012) (source).   

Project Summary

In South Asia, after the kharif or rainy season rice crop, farmers often leave the land fallow. The project aims to ramp up lentil production and nutrition security in South Asia by growing it as an added crop in winters in the rice fallows in India’s eastern and north eastern states, Nepal and Bangladesh. Along with being rich in protein (up to 35%) and macro- and micronutrients, pulses also have the unique ability of biological nitrogen fixation to enrich the soils. The approach, therefore, is enhancing sustainable rice-based production systems prevalent in the region.

The project is implementing a multi-pronged approach to ensure maximum and long-lasting results:

  • Developing early maturing lentil varieties that are high yielding and disease resistant to establish it as a second crop in rice fallows and break mono-cropping pattern
  • Optimizing and disseminating crop management technologies such as zero tillage, treating seed with rhizobium and fungicides, seed sowing rates, and applying fertilizers and insecticides
  • Developing robust local seed production and distribution of quality seed through establishment of village-based seed systems, driving both self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship
  • Capacity building of farmers, extension personnel and regional scientists for technology transfer

As research outcomes, the lentil yield has demonstrated varying increases across different sites, with improved crop package reaping an impressive 1.5 t/ha in West Bengal compared to  the state and national average of 0.7 t/ha. Another important outcome established relay cropping as higher yielding (versus normal cropping) and using zero tillage even more advantageous. For example, in Jehanabad, Bihar, farmers using improved technology package with zero tillage reaped 42% higher yield and increased their income by 60% (including saving in fuel cost etc.) 

In cutting edge development, ICARDA’s crop improvement program has developed extra early maturing lentil varieties, maturing in just 80 to 100 days that will fit in well in rice–boro rice systems in the eastern states of India. Also machine harvestable lentil, faba and chickpea have been developed. “These innovative lentil varieties could play a critical role in large-scale jump in pulses production in South Asia region”, says Dr. Shiv Kumar Agrawal, ICARDA’s lead lentil breeder.

The project is currently focusing on out-scaling of optimized lentil technology ‘packages’, working closely with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and Nepal Agricultural Research Council and through outreach partnership with local organizations.

Project Highlights

  • In India, over 6000 farmers involved in project implementation reaching a coverage of 1970 ha across 324 villages (2013-15)
  •  In Bangladesh, improved varieties (about a dozen) spread to 85% of rice fallows in the country, bringing an additional annual income of US$26.6 million
  •  In Nepal, about 60% area is under improved varieties (10 varieties released) bringing in an additional income of US $61.92 million
  • Set up stronger seed systems through new village seed hubs in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and trained farmers in quality seed production which has given rise to local seed production ventures and added incomes, e.g., quality seed production of lentil and chickpea generated US $44,500 in Nepal and of lentil, grasspea and field pea US $90,938 in Bangladesh (2014).
  • More than 14,500 farmers including 1918 women trained on improved lentil cultivation technologies and practices through farmer training and field days

A Big Opportunity

Estimates suggest that millions of hectares are left fallow every year for up to six months after the rice harvest – some 11.7 million hectares in India, 0.4 million in Nepal, and 2.1 million in Bangladesh

“These fallow lands offer an enormous opportunity to increase pulses production and rural nutrition in South Asia”, says Dr. Ashutosh Sarker, the South Asia Regional Program coordinator of ICARDA. “What’s more? Pulses in rice fallows are sustainably intensifying productivity and adding farmer incomes.”

ICARDA’s newly established legume research platform in India and phenotyping facilities in Morocco and Sudan are poised to accelerate legume research in the developing world and deliver technologies that can expand legume cultivation and nourish both people and the soils throughout Asia and Africa. The pulses research platform sited in India, near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state, is supporting and building the region’s capacity for pulse production in partnership with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and regional partners.