PhD students Getahun Lombamo (left) and Hiwot Haileslassie (centre), alongside their supervisor Carol Henry (photo by David Stobbe).

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In parts of southern Ethiopia, malnutrition causes half of all child deaths and zinc deficiency in three-quarters of pregnant women.

"Malnutrition blights lives," says University of Saskatchewan nutrition professor Carol Henry. "Children who are chronically malnourished in the first thousand days of their lives can suffer irreversible damage to their physical and mental development."

Pulses, low-fat legumes with nutritional super powers, may provide part of the answer.

Pulses are highly digestible and excellent sources of protein, fibre and micronutrients. Their nutritional benefits are so important that the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.

Some parts of Ethiopia were once considered unsuited to growing pulse crops due to recurring periods of drought. This view may change thanks to a research collaboration between the U of S and the Ethiopian Hawassa University, a top centre in human nutrition.

"Our international partnership has shown local farmers the best management practices for pulses such as chickpea and haricot bean," said Henry. "Zinc fertilizer, crop diversification and cropping systems have increased soil fertility and, in return, pulse productivity."

The yield of the new pulse crops exceeds those of local varieties by 60 to 90 per cent. Ethiopian institutions plan to produce more improved pulse varieties and distribute the seeds to more than 70,000 farming households in the coming years.

After moving to Saskatoon from Ethiopia three years ago, Henry's PhD students, Getahun Lombamo and Hiwot Haileslassie, have been researching the integration of pulses into people's diets to combat malnutrition in their home country.

Lombamo examined how eating pulses can benefit community health. His research involved 600 mothers and children under age five, comparing pulse-growing communities to those cultivating mainly cereals.

"I found that mothers had higher dietary intakes of protein and micronutrients than mothers in cereal-growing areas," Lombamo said.

He also found that mothers in pulse-growing communities were unaware of the long-term impact of malnutrition on their children's health. After six months of nutrition education, awareness of the effects of malnourishment significantly improved, he said.

"After the training, they were a lot more prepared to take positive steps toward the change we were proposing, such as eating more pulses as part of their healthy meals, along with other food groups, and willingness to cultivate more pulses," he said.

Haileslassie is developing recipes and cooking techniques that enhance the nutritional benefits of pulses without sacrificing taste. She has found that food processing strategies such as soaking and germination are the best way to maximize the nutrition of dishes.

"These processing techniques will help households with less diversified diets get the most from the food they have," she said. "Cooking time is reduced when soaking and germination are applied."

Better cooking techniques can also help improve women's lives. The less time women spend daily fetching water and collecting firewood, the more time they have to improve their lives through education and other activities, Henry says.

The research is funded by the International Development Research Centre and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund. Henry and her team have been awarded an additional $3.85 million to scale up their innovations.


Article written by Federica Giannelli, a graduate student intern in the U of S research profile and impact unit. This article first ran as part of the 2015 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
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