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An overview of world trade in pulses

12 January 20246 min reading

In the realm of global agriculture, pulses have emerged as a nutritional powerhouse crucial to food security. Beyond their traditional role in the food sector, pulses are experiencing a surge in demand from the feed and processing sectors, fueled by the rapid growth of the plant-based protein market. This article provides a comprehensive overview of world trade in pulses, delving into the recent trends, key players, and the anticipated trajectory. 


Diana Sarungbam
Market Analyst
International Grains Council (IGC)

Background and introduction

On the basis of their high nutritional value, pulses are of particular importance to food security, playing an increasingly important role in promoting sustainable agriculture owing to an ability to improve soil health and water use efficiency. In addition to demographic and income drivers, pulses consumption has been growing in recent years against the backdrop of a changing demand profile. 

Other than traditional use in the food sector, uptake in feed and processing sectors is rising, driven by the fast growing plant-based protein market. World trade in pulses has posted impressive growth in the ten years to 2022, averaging 17.9m t. Asia accounts for more than 65% of global import demand, with China, India, Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) being key buyers. Europe and Africa are also notable pulses importers, each accounting for around 10% of trade. Dry peas, lentils and chickpeas account for the bulk of total pulses import demand.

GLOBAL TRADE

Amid firm demand, global trade in pulses is estimated to increase by 8% y/y in 2023 (Jan/Dec), to 19.7m t. With pulses encompassing a wide range of varieties, growth is led by an expected expansion in dry peas and lentils volumes. 

 Dry peas trade in 2023 climbed by 8% y/y, to 5.5m t, largely linked to larger deliveries to China. After plunging to a five-year low in the prior year, Chinese arrivals rebounded by 13% y/y, to around 1.9m t, amid firm demand in feed, food and processing sectors. In addition to a larger exportable surplus in Canada, the main supplier, amid a good 2022/23 crop, Russian shipments to China have increased since early 2023 following an agreement on phyto-sanitary requirements. 

Pulses: Global trade

Furthermore, largely reflecting strong import demand, mainly for feed peas in Spain amid tighter supplies, EU arrivals are estimated to reach a five-year peak of 0.7m t. Linked to bigger shipments to Asia and the EU, dispatches by Russia rose by more than 50% y/y, to a record of 1.6m t. Canada maintained its position as the largest exporter of dry peas, with shipments advancing by 7% y/y, to 2.3m t, albeit below the five-year average.

Demand for lentils increased by almost one-fifth y/y, to 5.0m t, mainly underpinned by a marked increase in Indian buying. The government of India is set to continue with its relaxed lentil import policy until early 2025. Additionally, supplies of pigeon peas were tight in the domestic market, linked to thin stocks and a potentially small 2023/24 harvest; as a consequence, arrivals rose for a second consecutive year, to 1.3m t. 

Among other buyers, purchases by Turkey increased by nearly one-third y/y, to around 0.8m t. Based on trade to date, imports from Canada were particularly large in the first half of the year, largely linked to thin supplies and high prices in the local market. With most shipments destined for South Asia, exports by Australia surged sharply y/y, to 1.8m t, while dispatches by Canada expanded by 4%, to a three-year high of 2.0m. 

Chickpeas trade is pegged modestly higher y/y, at 2.1m t, mostly on growing Asian demand, as bigger deliveries to Bangladesh and Turkey more than offset reduced buying by Pakistan. Despite a slower pace of shipments by Australia compared to previous year, purchases by Bangladesh are seen slightly higher y/y, with deficits covered by supplies from India. 

Urd/mung beans dispatches are pegged at 2.1m t (+1% y/y); shipments by Myanmar is seen modestly higher y/y amid good crop and estimated sizeable dispatches to India and China. 

Concerning other pulses, trade is seen broadly steady y/y, at 2.2m t, while kidney beans volumes are placed modestly higher, at 1.6m. In contrast, broad beans demand is seen edging marginally lower y/y, to 1.2m t, including weaker demand from Egypt. 

Outlook for 2024

Although final volumes will be influenced by myriad factors, global demand is anticipated to stay firm in 2024, tied to purchases by the two largest buyers – China and India. With domestic utilisation expected to hold up, imports by China could remain elevated. In India, the 2023/24 rabi (winter-sown) pulses planted area is reportedly smaller y/y which may negatively impact the final crop number. Furthermore, the government of India has relaxed pulses trade policy, including the lifting of an import duty on yellow peas until 31 March 2024, while also extending the duty exemption for lentils, pigeon peas and urd bean by around one year until 31 March 2025. However, global supplies may be slightly tighter compared to the previous year, with dry peas and lentils output in Canada – the world’s largest exporter – lower y/y. However, much may also depend on 2024/25 plantings, which typically commence in April. Similarly, official outlooks point to a reduced outturn in Australia, largely on diminished yield potential following hot, dry conditions in major growing areas.

Conclusions

After having grown impressively in the past decade and more, pulses occupy an increasingly important position in global food supply chains, being an alternative source of protein and contributing to the sustainable development of agriculture. While Asia remains the pivotal region in terms of its ability to shape broader demand trends, pulses have gained traction in a number of other key regions, including Europe and the Americas. As a consequence, they are an important consideration for farmers in many geographical areas, with Canada, Australia, Russia, Myanmar and the US being the main exporters. Moving forward, the IGC predicts further growth in pulses trade over the medium-term, with volumes continuing to be shaped by uptake in food, feed and processed sectors. As in the past, trade will be dominated by dry peas, lentils and chickpeas, which typically account for as much as two-thirds of total pulses import demand in some years.   

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