Legumes, a European emergency

Legumes, a European emergency

October 10, 2019

Legumes, a European emergency

A European research project shows the need for combined strategies to increase legume consumption.

Global population is increasing, and so is the need to ensure adequate protein supply for everyone. Beans, lentils and chickpeas can serve this purpose with a reduced environmental impact and lower costs than those required to produce a similar amount of animal protein. From a nutritional point of view, in addition to providing protein, legumes provide low-glycaemic-index starch and fibre and, as a result, can help prevent metabolic diseases.

This has been confirmed by Bálint Balázs, a Hungarian researcher at the helm of the Environmental Social Science Research Group (ESSRG), which coordinates part of the European project Fit4Food2030 that focuses on sustainable food production.

Perception problems

In the past, legume consumption was particularly common in the Mediterranean region, and less so in continental Europe. However, today, the countries that traditionally consume broad beans or lentils are also giving up good habits. One of the main reasons identified by the European project is their reputation as “food for the poor” due to their low cost. This is a perception problem, but it also has a considerable effect on production and the market, since farmers have no incentive to grow them: there is not enough demand from consumers, even though various EU programmes support legume production. Balázs explains: “In Europe, only 5 percent of land is cultivated with legumes. European agriculture mainly produces cereals, on about two-thirds of its arable land. There is also a problem of diversity: there are about 20,000 different types of legumes, but soya and chickpeas are mostly grown and, in general, no more than a dozen varieties.

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An environmentally friendly choice

Legumes are not only a source of protein but also an environmentally friendly choice: they can absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil, thereby reducing the need for fertilizers. This crop is therefore particularly suitable for rotation, which is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. According to data collected as part of this European project, Italy and Spain are the largest consumers of legumes in Europe and these crops are grown in rotation in approximately 4 percent of farms. Instead, they should be grown in at least 15 to 20 percent of farms.

According to experts, in order to promote legume production we need to take action through policies, but also individually. 

Growing legumes becomes profitable only after a few years, so even when supported financially, farmers tend to plant the same crops over and over again. A prime example is that of Canada, where legume cultivation accounts for 20 percent of agricultural production. Some Canadian products, such as lentils, are exported worldwide

We also need to drive demand, by increasing consumer demand for legumes and drawing attention to the fact that it is healthy food rather than a meat substitute, which puts them into a niche in terms of food planning, especially for those who do not want to become vegetarians.

There is no single strategy for boosting the production and consumption of legumes,” experts conclude. “We need to act on several fronts but, above all, we need to change the eating habits of European citizens by encouraging them to embrace traditional Mediterranean cuisine.

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