11 February 2022, UK: The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has designated 10th February as World Pulses Day to recognise the importance of pulses, which are the seeds of crops such as faba beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. The FAO know they are critically important and sustainable sources of nutrition globally. Pulses offer high nutritional density, including protein, carbohydrates, essential minerals, and many other health-promoting bioactive compounds with human health benefits. Pulse crops can achieve their yields without the application of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser since they can harness the abundant nitrogen gas in the air and convert it into protein with the help of a symbiosis with soil bacteria held in their roots. Pulses can also be stored dry and for long periods, as an assurance of nutritional provision during periods of food shortage or crop failure. That’s why pulses are unique in offering the opportunity to embrace environmental benefits in those localities which choose to grow pulses; nutritional benefits to those who chose to consume pulses; and nutritional security to those to choose to store pulses. These advantages are considered very important for food security in many regions of the world, especially those threatened by climate change and environmental degradation.
The UN’s interests in climate change exemplified at COP26 in Glasgow are allied to its primary role, which is the facilitation of international cooperation to secure and maintain peace. The UN understands that peace is linked inextricably to nutritional provision and environmental stability and that both are undermined by climate change. Yet, the industrialised food systems which characterise the global north, including the UK, are missing the three key advantages offered by pulses, and so forgo the benefits to nutrition and the environment The omission of pulses is driven by inflexible systems created and driven by our current market forces, which ignore the true environmental and social costs of food which has led to gross over-consumption and environmental damage. These systems also rely on long haul global trade routes including many whose routes are at greatest risk, or are already suffering, from the impact of climate change. The system must change if we are to realise the benefits of pulses.
There are increasing numbers of progressive growers who aim to increase the production of home-grown pulses and benefit from the nature-based approach which pulses offer. In farms cultivating crops and farmed animals, pulses help facilitate self-sufficiency animal in feed and natural-nitrogen fertiliser. Home-grown pulses can offer significant financial incentives too, which are especially attractive in the face of soaring nitrogen-fertiliser prices. Pulses also help fix carbon too. Here, regenerative agriculture which minimises ploughing and maximises the return of crop residues to the production system offers improved soil-carbon sequestration and potentially access to carbon-trading markets.
British animal and aquaculture feed producers are realising that the environmental cost of the UK’s food systems must not be offshored, and the full range of benefits on offer can only be achieved if most of the pulses consumed are cultivated at home.
Encouragingly more and more farmers and food and drink companies are realising the benefits, but we have a long way to go to achieve the scale of benefits possible. Consumer awareness and choice of home-grown pulses and pulse-based products need to be made more transparent, affordable, and convenient. However, we also need to expand the potential of this market and develop high yielding and resilient varieties which are better suited to local conditions. Scotland also currently lacks sufficient capacities for pulse-processing to grades suitable for human food consumption. These adaptations need to be integrated across the value chain, and the benefits are large if we do so. Establishing such capacities and systems through government-business partnerships would present credible reassurance to citizens who desperately want more sustainable foods.
Dr Pete Iannetta is Head of Ecological Food Systems at the James Hutton Institute. This article was originally published in The Scotsman, 10th February 2022.