Happiness is home grown : the importance of legumes in the western world, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Pete Ianetta, molecular ecologist at the James Hutton Institute.
Why are legumes important?
Legumes are highly multi-functional plants, which means they do lots of things well. They fix nitrogen from the air, so they do not need synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. They also produce highly nutritious grains rich in proteins and minerals, including essential minerals and starch which help to promote slow energy release and protect against diabetes. In addition, their residues are left in the fields where they facilitate the natural chemical cycling of nitrogen and carbon, so they also help to improve soil quality and diversify farm systems which have been polarised and damaged by the production of a very narrow range of crops. Legumes are also an essential part of true, holistic crop rotation.
Why is sustainable protein intake important?
Current patterns of protein consumption and production are very inefficient. Overconsumption of protein in the developed global north and inefficient production methods lead to extreme levels of environmental damage and biodiversity loss. This is not acceptable on any level. We must consume and produce protein more sustainably to protect both human and environmental health.
In Europe, we barely eat any legumes at all. Why should we change this?
If you care about your own well-being and that of the environment, you will eat legumes and legume-derived products. However, these should be home grown as much as possible. It is best if your consumption of legumes (or legume-derived products) encourages legume-supported cropping systems and sustainable commercial development in your region. Happiness is home grown!
In Hungary, legumes are somewhat underrated. How about in the EU?
Really!? Hungary has a long history of legume consumption and Hungarian bean stew is fantastically tasty. This dish was also popularised by the (Italian) actor Bud Spencer – a TRUE legend – whose movies were very popular in Hungary.
Across the EU, Spain and Italy probably consume the most beans, for the most part the common varieties. Nevertheless, grain legumes account for only 1-4 % of crop rotation (this should be 15-25 %). Even then they are mainly sold to low premium, rather than high premium, animal food markets. Humans have a history of making poor choices, consistently. We need to re-develop more holistic and caring societies – and re-establishing a good food culture is a great place to start.
Legume-based meat substitutes are the new craze. Should we buy vegan meat?
You can buy what you wish – food dictatorship should be guarded against. However, if you care about the impact of the food you eat you should ask questions about it. For example, ‘Is my food choice providing the best nutrition and encouraging diverse and sustainable production, especially locally?’ There are over 20 grain legume types we could be consuming. Yet we mainly focus on yellow pea and soybean – we need to diversify the range of foods used, including legume grains.
Plant-based proteins are supposed to be good for the environment. Why?
There are many sources of plant-based proteins – they are not all legumes and not all are equally good in terms of their (synthetic) nitrogen demand. Nevertheless, if you eat plant proteins directly, the protein is consumed most efficiently with the lowest possible environmental costs. Otherwise, the protein is consumed by an animal and the conversion efficiency is much lower. For example, around 10 kilograms of protein (needs to be consumed by cattle) to make one kilogram of meat. Why not eat the protein directly? Sure, there is an argument that we can’t eat grass and clover – but that is no longer true as we can extract and isolate (biorefine) the protein from these sources too. Also, this argument takes no account of the diversity which has been eliminated for those animals to graze large pastures.
Legume-based protein is for the poor: in Europe, legumes aren’t appreciated and are mainly associated with poverty.
This is too easy and simple an explanation which ignores the drivers that are present now and have been historically. Food culture is determined by many complex issues. In addition, there is a lot of fake news and culture around legumes. ‘Foodism’ exists and there is plenty evidence of that for legumes. A major education and marketing initiative would help to rectify this situation. Why did schools stop teaching home economics and domestic studies?
What do you think about legume-based meat substitutes?
Legumes are not meat substitutes – they are very healthy foods in their own right. However, they can be formulated to taste like meat, and if someone has trouble reducing their meat intake and consuming a meat-mimic helps their transition, then great. I would pose a similar question to the one I posed earlier: does your consumption encourage the most efficient use of natural resources and respect biodiversity in all forms?
Do you think that a greater focus on agriculture would draw more attention to the cultivation of legumes? Why would we prefer lentils over meat if we can get meat in any shop?
No. We should focus on the food system as a whole and on consuming with much greater efficiency and respect for the environment and our own well-being. So, this is not about farming per se, but about realigning the entire food system. The main goals are surely optimising personal health and well-being, plus protecting the environment and preventing biodiversity loss.
Are there any European policies in place regarding legumes?
Current policies are confused, contradictory and even counter-productive. Whole areas of the food system are unregulated with respect to legumes and sustainable nitrogen use. Therefore, addressing the issues of our agrifood systems needs concerted and strategic action across many sectors. There is no single policy, and in fact the real power lies with consumers. With our strong scientific evidence base and with enough numbers of consumers already choosing sustainable options, the people are already providing the necessary ‘licence for change’ which governments need to introduce supportive policies with relative ease.
Should we grow legumes at all? Canada does it, but in Europe, we are focused on crops. Why not import lentils from North America?
Such dependency is always a risk and global markets are notoriously labile. In addition, if we imported grain legumes from outside Europe, we would continue to use excessive amounts of synthetic nitrogen – unless forage legumes are used, though these are not (yet) cash crops. Canada started growing grain legumes in the mid-1990s when it removed agricultural crop subsidies, and so began cropping with more efficiency and with a firm focus on ensuring excellent soil quality. Canada has no winter cropping, so has only one crop a year to get things right. Grain legumes account for over 20 % of crop rotation in Canada – let’s be more like Canada!