Pigeonpea: A Little Crop That’s Come a Long Way

By Amanda Stone

The pigeonpea has recently begun to provoke groundbreaking research for its versatility, productivity, high nutritional value, and subsequent potential to assure increased food security for millions of Asians and Africans.

Photo credit: ICRISAT

This small plant is grown by subsistence farmers in warm semi-arid and sub-humid tropics, often in poor soils with little to no chemical inputs thanks to its hardiness and drought-tolerance. Historians believe the pigeonpea originated in India and then traveled to East Africa and up the Nile Valley to West Africa. Today, the food is a staple for diets in India, southern and eastern Africa, and Central America. It’s also used extensively as a cover crop, to create a hedge or windbreak, or as green manure in many sustainable farming systems and home gardens in the tropics and subtropics because of its ability to grow in warm temperatures.

The pigeonpea can help improve food security because it requires minimal water or inputs, can cope with poor soil and little water, yet still produces yields of grain that contain more than 20 percent protein, which is especially important for countries facing hunger and malnutrition

In addition to its nutritious and hardy benefits, the cowpea is also is a nitrogen-fixing legume which gives it great potential to improve soil quality and–when grown together with other pasture plants–to create a highly fertile, productive and sustainable livestock feeding system. The leaves, flowers, seed pods and peas all provide a nutritious animal fodder, not to mention attracting bees that help it to self-propagate. When planted around young fruit trees they provide shelter without over-shading and the trimmings can be used as mulch with the nitrogen from its root nodules nourishing the tree.

This protein-packed little legume, if cultivated more broadly and in collaboration with other plants, has the potential to prevent hunger and improve not only farmer’s abilities to feed their families, but also their incomes. The International Crops Research Institute ICRISAT claims that if there were only one legume that assures food security in the semi-arid tropics, it would be pigeonpea.

Amanda Stone is Nourishing the Planet’s Communications Assistant.

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