Year of the Pulse to a Lifetime of Benefits

Year of the Pulse to a Lifetime of Benefits

October 07, 2016

Year of the Pulse to a Lifetime of Benefits

At the end of the Year of Pulse promoted by FAO, we outline the benefit of legumes both for our diet and for the environment.

Imagine a revolutionary food product that could be created easily, stored well, and would minimize food waste. It would also be an accessible and healthy source of nutrients for rich and poor. Furthermore, this product would contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emission by requiring less energy to be produced as well as reducing the need for animal proteins. Finally, this product would dramatically increase the diversity of our diets. To some, this product may sound like an outlandish and farfetched dream. It, however, may be more familiar than you would realize. And that is why the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations decided to dedicate the year 2016 to pulses, also known as grain legumes, with examples like cowpeas, common beans, lima beans, chickpeas (or garbanzos), and lentils. As surprising as it may be with all the obvious benefits, pulses are not as commonly consumed as they could be and as a result we miss out on many of their nutritional, environmental, and social benefits. Therefore, the FAO’s 2016 year of the pulse should not fade into the past but instead become a lifetime campaign to bring pulses onto your plate more often.

Increased diversity
Preserving and increasing biodiversity is one of the larger issues agriculture faces and is fundamental in creating a resilient food system. Historically, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate an incredibly diverse diet. Today, our diets are made up of a significantly reduced fraction of the plants and plant products we once consumed. The legume family of plants still makes up a significant fraction of foods we can find in our diet today. But there is still a significant amount of untapped species diversity and also genetic diversity that may be crucial to us as climate change shifts zones of production of other major crops. Every species in the legume family contains a huge amount of diversity in seed size and color, growth habit, and adaptions to climates, from tropical rain forest to arid environments like the Sahel. One example of a well-adapted and under-utilized pulse is the Bambara bean. More commonly grown in Africa, it is capable of producing in poor soils and can be found growing in urban areas where land is scarce along railways1.

Legumes can also offer numerous benefits to the farmer and the ecosystem. For instance, many pulses are capable of climbing up trees and shrubs in agroforestry systems, providing an alternative to slash and burn agriculture. Other pulses, like pigeon pea can be intercropped with cereals because they don’t compete for water because of their deep roots and can, in fact, supply the other plants with water. Intercropping with pulses or using them in a rotation can result in decreases in disease and pest pressures and can also benefit future crops grown in the field because legume roots contribute to organic matter and can also provide nitrogen to the plant through symbiosis with soil bacteria.

Benefits for the climate change
Agriculture and climate change are inextricably linked and the effects of greenhouse gasses will paradoxically make it more difficult to produce food in the future. With approximately one third of our food wasted, it is clear that becoming more efficient and less wasteful could reduce our emissions. One of the greatest aspects of pulses is that their dry seeds can store for long periods of time without the need for refrigeration. Another source of emissions in agriculture is from animal-based proteins, which can often require huge amounts of feed, water, and other energy-intensive inputs. Pulses are a great alternative protein source because they are packed with nutrients and contain three times the protein found in rice. Finally, as previously mentioned, pulses have the ability to form symbiotic relationships with soil microbes and can fix nitrogen, meaning they may require less energy-intensive synthetic fertilizers or manure. Pulses, therefore, offer an immediate and easy solution to our current agriculture-climate change dilemma.

Largely underutilized
Many people’s main reservations about eating pulses are that cooking takes time and that it causes flatulence. Pulses, however, can be cooked without soaking, especially if they are freshly harvested. Soaking for several hours can be replaced by a quick boil followed by normal simmering. Flatulence can be decreased, if not eliminated, by pouring off the soak water and replacing it by fresh water for cooking. Additionally, people who consume more pulses on a regular diet tend to experience fewer symptoms over time, most likely as a result of shifting their gut microbiome.
Pulses are an incredibly important and largely underutilized group of plants with enormous benefits. By consuming pulses more often as well as choosing a wider diversity of pulses, you’ll spur on additional changes that will help to support the growing and production of pulses. The first result of increased demand is that more farmers will grow them and as a result will be able to take full advantage of their benefits in their cropping systems. Out of this demand, will hopefully also come better marketing and trade systems as well as policies and programs that can support these crops and their production. Continued research and development of better adapted cultivars as well as the preservation and maintenance of wild and cultivated varieties is an important goal. And as with all things, industry follows trends and would most likely make the consumption of pulses even more convenient, eliminating one of the biggest obstacles pulses face to gain greater acceptance. Your choices in the market are powerful, and right now that power lies before you in the option of whether or not you have pulses on your plate.

1 "Pulses and Biodiversity." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. N.p., 2016. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

Zachary Dashner, BCFN Alumni

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