Beans, lentils, chickpeas: from the food of the poor to the food of the smart, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Bálint Balázs, researcher at the environmental research group ESSRG.
What can you tell me about legume consumption in Europe?
Bálint Balázs: Europeans barely eat any legumes, which is no surprise considering the fact that farmers are reluctant to plant grain legumes. Only 2 % of the available land area is cultivated with legumes and even these are monocultures. Without crop rotation, the environmental benefits of legume production are lost. Even worse, European consumers are reluctant to buy these products, mainly because they are associated with poverty. In Hungary, for example, the annual consumption of lentils is approximately one bowl per person, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day.
What are the benefits of growing beans, for example?
Bálint Balázs: Crop rotation is extremely important: since legumes are able to capture atmospheric nitrogen and transfer it to the soil, they can provide excellent nitrification for other crops to grow. Legumes can replace a lot of artificial fertilisers, but their nitrification effect is overlooked even in the agricultural sector. Many decision-makers are unaware of these benefits – they simply don’t know that these plants absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and not from the soil. Moreover, the beneficial effects of legumes are not instantaneous: they need a few years to yield results. Under the current system, farmers receive annual state subsidies and it is more profitable to think ahead for a year than to plan for the long run.
Are there any European initiatives to popularise the consumption of legumes?
Bálint Balázs: There are farmers who specialise in chickpeas or beans, but it’s not that common and, as I have already mentioned, demand for legumes on the European market is quite low. This is the area where legumes are lagging behind other agricultural sectors, cereals for example. Technology, processing and milling is far less developed than in the cereal industry. Moreover, there is a common belief that legumes cause bloating, which is a major turnoff for customers.
For 15 years, the EU’s common agricultural policy has been supporting legume production and crop rotation, and rural development funds have been allocated to the sector, but beans and lentils can’t seem to shake the stigma. Umberto Eco called beans the saviour of Europe, but European consumers are rejecting them.
Still, there are some serious legume-growers around the world, Canada being the world’s largest lentil and pea producer. Why is it a success story for Canada but not for the rest of the world?
Bálint Balázs: Sure, if you go to a store, you’ll see that most of the dried peas and lentils come from Canada. There is a large region, a county within Canada, where farmers deal exclusively with legumes. This region supplies virtually the whole world with legumes.
These pulses also represent extraordinary quality, but that’s not a coincidence, since each member of the value chain is fully taken care of. In Canada, they decided to replace animal protein in the 1940s and legumes were the cheapest alternative. They are sustainable and cheap, and the government spotted an area where Canada could be a leader in the market – lentils. The result: we can get Canadian legumes all over the world, not only in Hungary but also at the wholesale market in Portugal.
Canadian legumes are even imported by India. How is this possible?
Bálint Balázs: India is both an exporter and an importer of pulses, which clearly shows that it could be self-sufficient, but that’s not how the global economy works. By the way, research on globalisation shows that the global economy is being driven by this shipping craze and that we have reached the limit. It’s difficult to talk about the sustainability of these systems, precisely because this process has been a closed-loop system for hundreds of years – it’s a cyclical procedure. The guiding principle behind this process has always been growth.
What about Europe?
Bálint Balázs: In Europe, cereals are the major players. Two thirds of the land are occupied by grain crops and legumes are only grown on about 5 % of the available fields. As for legumes: there are approximately 20 000 species, but we only deal with 10-12 species; we could achieve a much better rate than this.
Legumes are good and cheap, but you can’t have it all: it can be home grown, organic, anything you want, but you can’t have everything at once. Canadian lentils are obviously grown in Canada and have to be shipped to Europe, but the quality is good, and as I said, you can’t have everything.