The International Year of Pulses 2016: Remembering Dr. Joe Smartt

Guest post by Dr. Mike Jackson (bio below).

Peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas – and other leguminous species. All are pulses or grain legumes, important crops around the world, adding essential nutritional value to human diets. And, while they’re about it, improving soil fertility through nitrogen fixation.IYoP2016-colour-en

During 2016, pulses will be in the spotlight. Their time has come. That’s because the 68th UN General Assembly (in 2013) declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP) [1], and nominated the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to ‘facilitate the implementation of the Year in collaboration with Governments, relevant organizations, non-governmental organizations and all other relevant stakeholders.’

Among the aims of IYP 2016 are ‘heighten[ed] public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition.’ IYP 2016 is expected to ‘create a unique opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain that would better utilize pulse-based proteins, further global production of pulses, better utilize crop rotations and address the challenges in the trade of pulses.’ Hopefully as a result of IYP 2016, the pulses will receive increased research support that has more often been given to the cereals and roots and tubers in the past.

Of course, IYP 2016 is also a great opportunity to recognize the scientific contributions of researchers―past and present―whose research and publications have raised awareness of this extremely important group of crops, the pulses.

Joe Smartt, Photo credit Mike Jackson

Foremost among them is the late Dr Joseph ‘Joe’ Smartt, geneticist and renowned grain legume expert, who died in June 2013. Born in 1931 in London, he studied for his BSc degree in botany at Durham University in the UK, graduating in 1952. There followed a Diploma in Agricultural Science from the University of Cam­bridge in 1953, and another in Tropical Agriculture from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, Trinidad (now the University of the West Indies) in 1954. He completed his PhD in 1965 at North Carolina State University (NCSU) for a disser­tation on cross compatibility between the cultivated groundnut, Arachis hypogaea and wild species, supervised by the distinguished groundnut breeder and geneticist, Walton C. Gregory. His thesis research emphasized the relevance of experimental taxonomy to unravel the evolutionary relationships between Arachis species.

Between 1954 and 1961 he was a groundnut breeder in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). In 1967 he was appointed Lecturer in Genetics in the Department of Botany at the University of Southampton. He remained there until 1996 when he retired after 29 years of teaching and distinguished research in evolutionary biology. In 1990 he was appointed Reader in Biology by the university, and in 1989 he was awarded the DSc degree for his published work on the genetics and evolution of crop plants.

Joe Smartt was an early pioneer of the importance of grain legumes. His publications on the diversity, evolution, and domestication syndromes in grain legumes stemmed initially from his own practical experiences as a plant breeder in Africa, and showed how evaluation and exploitation of legume germplasm collections, cou­pled with appropriate evolutionary biology research, could lead to enhanced yields. His own primary primary research was on groundnuts and Phaseolus beans, but his influential books and papers on the evolution and use of genetic resources of these species and other grain legumes led more widely to increased interest in their improvement.

Six of his most important synthesis papers were published in Experimental Agriculture between 1984 and 1986. Among the books he authored were Tropical Pulses in 1976, and Grain Legumes: Evolution and Genetic Resources in 1990. He co-edited (with Norman Simmonds) second editions of Evolution of Crop Plants (in 1995) and Principles of Crop Improvement (1999). He edited The Groundnut Crop: A Scientific Basis for Improvement, published in 1994, and co-edited Food and Feed from Legumes and Oil Seeds (with Emmanuel Nwokolo) in 1996.

It’s not an exaggeration to state that his scientific contri­butions on pulses are comparable with those of Jack Harlan (on cereals) and Jack Hawkes (potatoes), to name just two of his contemporaries, which must surely have encouraged others to take up the mantle and develop successful legume breeding programs. The International Year of Pulses 2016 is just the opportunity to reflect on this pioneering science, and build further on its premises to increase food security for those communities who depend daily upon these important pulses.

Selected bibliography


Smartt J (1976) Tropical pulses. Longman, London.

Smartt J (1990) Grain legumes: evolution and genetic resources. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Smartt J (ed) (1994) The groundnut crop: a scientific basis for improvement. Springer, Dordrecht.

Smartt J, Simmonds NW (eds) (1995) Evolution of crop plants, 2nd edn. Longman, UK.

Nwokolo E, Smartt J (eds) (1996) Food and feed from legumes and oil seeds. Chapman and Hall, London.

Simmonds NW, Smartt J (1999) Principles of crop improve­ment, 2nd edn. Blackwell Science, Oxford.


Smartt J (1984) Evolution of grain legumes I. Mediterranean pulses. Exp. Agric. 20:275–296.

Smartt J (1985) Evolution of grain legumes. II. Old and New World pulses of lesser economic importance. Exp. Agric. 21:1–18.

Smartt J (1985) Evolution of grain legumes. III. Pulses in the genus Vigna. Exp. Agric. 21:87–100.

Smartt J (1985) Evolution of grain legumes. IV. Pulses in the genus Phaseolus. Exp. Agric. 21:193–207.

Smartt J (1985) Evolution of grain legumes. V. The oilseeds. Exp. Agric. 21:305–319.

Smartt J (1986) Evolution of grain legumes. VI. The future—the exploitation of evolutionary knowledge. Exp. Agric. 22:39–58.

[1]    Other International Years celebrated rice (2004), potato (2008), and quinoa (2013).

Dr Mike Jackson OBE retired in 2010 after a 40 year career in international agricultural research at the International Potato Center (CIP) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and academia at The University of Birmingham, working on potatoes, rice and pulses. He is a graduate of the University of Southampton (BSc) in botany and geography, and The University of Birmingham (MSc and PhD) in genetic resources conservation and biosystematics of potatoes, respectively. On Twitter you can find him at @mikejackson1948, and he blogs at

Let us know if you have a story to share about pulses, pulse breeders, pulse science or pulse history and traditions!

1 thought on “The International Year of Pulses 2016: Remembering Dr. Joe Smartt

  1. I was about to incorporate Prof Smartt reference into my thesis when my internet search bought me to this site. Firstly I am quite surprised and proud to know that Prof Smartt did some of his studies at my local University, The University of the West Indies, at that time the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture. Secondly I am a PhD candidate in Plant Science studying pigeon pea. So that makes it all extra special.

    Pigeonpea is the most popular legume in Trinidad and Tobago and The University of the West Indies continues active research on the crop.

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