Move over, quinoa, kale, and açaí– 2016’s newest superfood might come in a familiar package (or can). Pulses — the dried edible seeds of legume plants, which include things like lentils, dried peas, and beans — are hoping to get their moment in the spotlight, thanks in part to a United Nations campaign to make 2016 the International Year of Pulses.
Pulses are already a well-known entity outside of the developed world — according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, pulses make up nearly 75 percent of the average diet in developing countries. Nutritionally, pulses are a key source of protein for those who don’t have access to, cannot afford, or choose not to eat meat — containing between 20 and 25 percent protein by weight, pulses have twice the protein of quinoa, making them an attractive replacement for meat-based protein.
Pulses are also a low water-use crop — daal, a split lentil, requires just one-tenth the amount of water that an equal amount of cooked beef requires. Because of this, pulses are well-suited for agriculture in areas where water is relatively scarce, and most pulse-growing operations don’t require extra irrigation.
“I don’t know if I could be any more excited about this category of food,” Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, told ThinkProgress. “This recognition is terrific for the industry and pulse farmers, but overall it’s important for the world. We have to have more focus on these crops.”
Beyond their nutritional characteristics, pulses are unique in the plant kingdom in that they fix their own nitrogen in the soil, meaning that growing pulses requires little to no added inputs from synthetic fertilizers. Nitrogen fertilizers, when applied to soil, release nitrous oxide as a byproduct, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to agriculture’s carbon footprint. Excess nitrogen can also be washed away during storm events, making its way into streams, rivers, lakes, and bays where it encourages algal blooms and dead zones that can be destructive to marine ecosystems.
CREDIT: Global Pulse Confederation
In addition to requiring minimal additional nitrogen inputs, studies have shown that pulses can boost yields for other crops when used in a crop rotation. In Montana, one of the United States’ leading producers of both wheat and pulses, wheat farmers have seen their yields increase when, instead of allowing their fields to lie fallow after a wheat crop, those fields are planted with pulses.
“Typically we would have to leave land fallow for one to two years; now [farmers] can take and put a pulse crop in there with the nitrogen fixing qualities that improves the soil, and your inputs are less,” Jayson O’Neill, a public information specialist with the Montana Department of Agriculture, told ThinkProgress, adding that pulse crops also give farmers another marketable source of income at the end of the growing season. “It’s such a win-win.”
A five-year study on crop rotations conducted in Saskatchewan, Canada, also found that durum wheat grown in a crop rotation system with pulses had a carbon footprint 34 percent lower than durum grown in a crop rotation system with other cereal grains. While nitrogen fixing through pulses can’t ever fully replace synthetic fertilizer — at least not without suffering some decreases in crop yields — it can work as a larger system that can help reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizer applied to cropland.
“With the health benefits and with the environmental benefits, pulses can be an easy cheap source of some nutritional plant-based protein,” O’Neill said.
Still, the pulse industry will need to overcome some key barriers before lentils and beans can reach the superfood status of things like quinoa; perhaps the most pressing issue is that most consumers either don’t know what pulses are, or are unaware of their environmental and health benefits. Currently, O’Neill said, most of the Montana’s pulse crop is exported, either to India or Mexico. In the United States, the majority of demand for pulse crops comes from garbanzo beans, which are used in hummus. But O’Neill and McGreevy both hope that the spotlight given to pulses by the United Nations increases both public interest in the food, as well as public funding for crop research.
Pulses do receive some funding from the federal government, having been included in the last two iterations of the Farm Bill under the Pulse Health Initiative, which allots $25 million annually to advance nutrition, crop genetics, and environmental health through pulse production. The iniative was championed by the pulse industry, as well as legislators from pulse-producing states, such as Sen. Marie Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID).
Still, McGreevy said, pulses don’t receive nearly the same amount of funding — or attention — as other commodity crops.
“These crops have really not had their due in terms of receiving public research funding,” McGreevy said. “We hope to change that. We hope to draw attention to the fact that we have to increase public investment in these crops to increase their productivity and enhance their nitrogen fixing component, so we can put more nitrogen into the soil for crops that follow and reduce greenhouse emissions even further.”
As the world looks to keep climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, especially following December’s climate agreement in Paris, a growing number of studies suggest that global demand for meat will have to decrease. According to a report released during the Paris talks by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, if global trends in meat and dairy consumption continue unabated, the world will be on track for warming well above 2 degrees Celsius, even with “dramatic emissions reductions across non-agricultural sectors.”
Pulses, McGreevy and O’Neill argue, present a more climate-friendly alternative to meat-based protein, while still satisfying a growing demand for food worldwide. Already, pea protein is making its way into the American supermarket, appearing in everything from vegan mayonnaise and meat substitutes to flour.
“If we’re going to hit these targets of 9 billion by 2050, that means that we have to increase food production by 70 percent,” McGreevy said. “How can we achieve that in a sustainable way that won’t destroy our environment? I feel pretty strongly that pulse crops are going to be a key component to delivering nutrient-dense foods in a sustainable agriculture system as we move to the future.”