The biggest outcry against inflation relates to the 40-50% price rise of some pulses — arhar, masoor, moong — to almost Rs 100/kilo. Pulses — dals and other protein-rich crops like gram, chickpeas (chhole) and red beans (rajma) — have historically been the main protein source of poor people.
Their protein content is 20-25%, double that of wheat (10-12%) and four times that of rice (4-6%). India has among the highest rates of child malnourishment and female anaemia. Indians badly need additional protein.
Unfortunately, pulses production has stagnated at around 14 million tonnes/year since 1990, while the population has increased by 350 million. Few other countries grow pulses, so only tiny imports are available. Hence, per capita consumption of pulses has been falling despite the need to augment protein intake. Better-off folk can afford protein from eggs, fish and meat, whose production is rising fast, but the poor cannot.
Pulse crops have a low yield and low profitability compared with cereals or oilseeds. They are drought-resistant and need little water, so they are grown in rain-fed, semi-arid areas. But whenever farmers there get irrigation, they switch from pulses to other crops. R&D has failed to create high-yielding pulses, so growing them has become progressively unattractive.
Yet, there is indeed a solution. While looking up “pulses” on internet sites, i found that some sites classified soyabeans as a pulse. Oil-bearing seeds are sometimes but not always excluded from the definition of pulses. Like other pulses, soyabeans fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, and have a high protein content. Indeed, soyabeans have 36-38 % protein and 18-20% oil. After extracting oil, the protein content rises to almost 50%, double that of pulses.
However, after extracting the soyabean oil, Indians use the residue — soya meal — as animal feed. Thus, even while humans are short of protein, we are diverting a major protein source to chickens, fish and cattle.
While the production of pulses has stagnated, that of soyabean has risen from almost nothing in the 1980s to 10 million tonnes/year. Indian soyabean yields are very low by international standards, and can be increased substantially in years to come. Clearly, processed soyabean can be an attractive, low-cost way of improving the protein consumption of the poor.
Now, there is nothing new about the using of soyabeans as food. Soya milk has long been a milk substitute for lactose-intolerant folk. The Chinese have long used soy milk to make tofu or bean curd, a delicacy. Many experts have recommended mixing soya flour with wheat flour to raise its protein content. And some companies have processed soya meal into vegetarian snacks or nuggets for cooking (such as nutri-nuggets).
However food habits do not change easily, so human soyabean consumption has been very low in India. Processed soya can retail at Rs 25/kilo, which means that soya flour is not a cheap substitute for wheat flour (atta), which costs much less. However, processed soya at Rs 25/kilo will be just a quarter the retail price of some dals. So, processed soya could be a very attractive dal substitute for the poor.
Problem: food habits are not easy to change. Soya does not taste like any mainline dal. No existing retail network stocks processed soya. One can be created through a new marketing campaign, but such campaigns for processed foods typically cost millions over several year.
Yet, food habits can indeed be changed, and the public distribution system provides a readymade retail network across India. We were saved from starvation by wheat aid from the US during the twin droughts of 1965-66, but the rice-eating southern states (especially Kerala) complained bitterly that wheat was unknown and unacceptable as food. However, as the years went by, southerners got used to wheat, especially poor people seeking cheap food.
Something similar can be done with soyabeans. Processed soya can be moulded into diverse shapes. So, companies can mould it into the shape of regular pulses, and call it soya dal. This will taste different and be spongier than other dals, yet the poor will surely buy it if it is available from the public distribution system at Rs 25/kilo.
At this price, no subsidy will be required. Yet, this unsubsidized soya dal will provide twice as much protein per kilo at a quarter the price of arhar or tur dal.
A food education campaign on TV will also be needed to highlight the nutritional benefits. Gradually people will become comfortable with soya dal, just as southerners gradually became comfortable with wheat.
Even without any TV campaign, poor people in Uttarakhand have already started eating processed soya. The rest of India should follow.