In a country like India where vegetarian food consumption is predominant, more by economic compulsions rather than preference, milk and legumes are the major sources of proteins in the diet. Cost wise milk proteins cost almost twice that from legumes and affordability is a factor to be reckoned with. Even the grain legumes which command almost 2-3 times the price of cereals are in short supply in the country, necessitating imports in large quantities. Most preferred legume in the country is the pigeon pea or Tur which is an important component of curries in the South as well as the North. There are others like Bengal gram, Green gram, Masoor, Dry pea, etc which are also used, though not every day. These legumes are normally milled into splits for making many traditional preparations though whole legumes are used directly also.
The normal daily protein need is estimated at 50-60 gm per day and more than half of this is met from legumes, balance coming from cereals and milk in a typical vegetarian diet. For consuming 25-30 gm of proteins a day, average legume consumption has to be about 125 to 150 gm for a person. Whole country's requirement can be met only if the annual availability is about 50 to 55 million tons where as in reality the production in the country never crossed beyond 20 million tons leaving a wide gap that needs to be bridged. With India becoming the diabetes capital of the world, importance of legume as a low glycemic food will assume more importance in the coming years. The current escalation in prices of legumes is scandalous with tur dal price crossing the Rs 100 per kg mark recently, probably because of large scale hoarding by traders, making it beyond the reach of most lower middle class consumers in the country.
Efforts in fifties, sixties and seventies of the last millennium to wean people away from legumes to some extent and meet their protein needs, oil seed cakes with more than 50% proteins in them were investigated as a supplement to the legume proteins but very little came out of such attempts as consumer acceptability became a problem. Advent cooker extruder technology made it possible to produce dal looking and behaving like natural dal. Work on leaf protein concentrates, single cell proteins and other non-conventional protein sources just became a part of history, again on account of poor acceptability. But further research on these aspects and more supportive state policies may yet resurrect this option in future under more compelling circumstances of large scale scarcity and unbearable economic burden on account of high prices.
Suggestions have been made regarding the possibility of exploiting wild and underutilized legumes which have emerged as cost-effective alternatives to the unreliable supply of animal-based protein in some of the developing nations where meat poultry and fish form important part of the diet. It is true that common legumes such as pigeon pea are available in limited quantities and it is unlikely the demand for these protein-rich sources, even if they are reasonably priced, can be met under the current production scenario. Focus is now on some of the natural but wild legumes which are not being adequately exploited. According to nutritionists some of these legumes that include Sesbania, Mucuna and Canavalia possess high nutritional value besides having some medicinal value also. But how far these obscure legumes which may be nutritionally similar to traditional legumes can be grown under the current agricultural practices and uncertainties regarding the economics, may still hamper any organized plans to encourage their cultivation. The processing parameters that can give good quality splits and doubts regarding consumer acceptability are other issues to be considered.
Increasing the protein content in staple cereals like rice and wheat through biotechnological intervention may be another long term option and necessary research tools are available with the scientists but in what way such "tampering" at genetic level will influence consumer acceptance is an issue that needs to be kept in mind. Unless the serious pulse crisis that faces India is addressed with high priority, the nutritional status of a large proportion of the population may reach crisis dimension in the coming years.