Bean there, done that : why we should eat more beans and legumes in general

The world needs more protein, but animal-based protein intake is by no means sustainable. Legumes are a good alternative to meat and thanks to their biological nitrogen fixation capacities, they also benefit the environment.

Legumes are not popular enough

As the world’s population grows, so does our demand for protein. One possible sustainable source of protein is legumes (beans, lentils and so on). Vegetarianism and veganism have attracted increasing interest in recent years, but legumes remain not popular enough among consumers. The Mediterranean diet is rich in legumes, but according to Bálint Balázs, leading researcher at the environmental research group ESSRG, based in Hungary, while legume consumption is more common in Mediterranean countries, it is not so popular in Europe as a whole. In fact, even Mediterranean countries are consuming fewer and fewer legumes, despite their traditional use of fava beans, lentils and other pulses.

Bàlint Balàzs, researcher at the environmental research group ESSRG : “Only 2 % of the available land area in Europe is used to cultivate legumes: an extremely low proportion.”

Traditionally associated with poverty as a result of their low cost, legumes are deeply unpopular with consumers throughout Europe and so growers tend to ignore them. Not to mention the fact that they are difficult to grow. There is simply no demand for legumes, despite the fact that several European Union programmes support their cultivation and consumption.

Legumes aren’t just useful as a source of protein: these plants are capable of absorbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and transferring it to the soil, making them particularly suitable for crop rotation (the practice of growing different types of crops on the same piece of land). Even among decision-makers, the benefits are little known. And yet the capacities of legumes to make nitrogen in air are precisely why they deserve special attention. This avoids fossil fuel use for synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and encourages natural chemical cycling, an important objective in trying to control climate change and biodiversity loss.

A knowledge deficit

According to Balázs, it is not only the decision-makers but also the producers themselves who are unaware of these benefits. The knowledge deficit is evident at every point in the supply chain, from growing, processing and milling, to selling (and buying) legumes. Many people think that legumes cause flatulence, which may discourage customers from buying them. Foodism or prejudice against certain types of food causes a lot of problems, and these prejudices are more marked in the field of legumes. A comprehensive education and marketing strategy could solve the problem. Interestingly, disinformation is an issue even in the world of legumes: for example a cause and effect relation between and flatulence and can be reduced by soaking and rinsing the beans.

Legumes are truly sustainable

Legumes can also eliminate the need for fertilisers by improving soil quality (or at least, they can replace some artificial nitrogen fertilisers). According to Pete Ianetta, director of the James Hutton Institute, Scotland, these seeds contain important nutrients, starch and minerals in addition to proteins. Diabetes is one of the most widespread diseases of our time and the consumption of low-cost legumes help to prevent it, as they are rich in fibre and contain slow-releasing carbohydrates.

According to Ianetta, Spain and Italy consume the most legumes in Europe. Only 1 to 4 % of crop rotation farms produce legumes, but this proportion should be more like 15 to 25 %.

Bàlint Balàzs ESMH scientistBàlint Balàzs : “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, soybeans and yellow peas being the most popular; we could achieve a much better rate than this.”

While legumes can be grown sustainably, Balázs says that we need to look at the big picture: that is to say agribusiness as a whole. Although the European Union has been supporting legume cultivation for 15 years, Balázs says that returns on investments after one year are more attractive to farmers, so they choose other crops over legumes which are slower to yield results. The benefits of legumes are manifested over many years and in order to make cultivation truly sustainable, changes need to be made in several sectors. According to Ianetta, changing consumer habits is also essential. If they are truly committed to sustainability, consumers should seek to preserve biodiversity and use natural resources as efficiently as possible. One of ways to achieve this goal is choosing legumes over other sources of protein.

Legumes for feeding animal too

As a cheap and nutritious food source, legumes are suitable not only for human consumption, but also for feeding animals. According to Balázs, China is one of the main players on this market, but there are increasing imports of soybeans from South America.

When it comes to imports, Canada is the world’s largest producer and exporter of lentils and other legumes and the crops produced there find their way all over the world, since they serve an existing market need. On top of this, Canada does not regulate production with state subsidies. It is no coincidence that Canadian lentils can be found everywhere, from India to Portugal, but in importing more legumes we are missing a trick: the best way to harness the full benefits of legumes, and help our soil to bind more nitrogen, is to grow our own. According to Ianetta, European countries should follow the example of Canada, whose legumes account for 20 % of the country’s crop rotation.

Pietro Iannetta ESMH ScientistPete Ianetta, molecular ecologist at the James Hutton Institute : “Grain legumes in Europe 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? Re-establishing a good food culture is a great place to start.”

There is no single European strategy for legume cultivation

There is no single European strategy for legume cultivation and current legislation is confusing and ineffective. Increased production of legumes is essential for the sustainable use of nitrogen and the growing need for sustainable protein products calls for a multi-sectoral regulation. Meat substitutes, which are becoming increasingly popular, are also made largely from legumes. However, they are fairly expensive to produce, which is why Ianetta believes that it is important to consider legumes as healthy foods, not as meat substitutes. Conscious consumers should first think about what is best for their health and that of the planet, and then make a decision as to what to consume. We should be asking questions about the nutritional value of our vegetables and where they are grown. According to Ianetta, to produce one kilogram of meat, a cow must consume 10 kilograms of protein. If that protein comes from legumes, then there’s no reason human beings should not eat them directly.

According to Balázs, it would be enough to return to eating legumes, soups and greens every day, rather than turning to artificial meat. Ianetta, on the other hand, says that meat substitutes can play a useful part in winning over carnivores who are reluctant to consume plant protein. However, legumes are not meat substitutes – they are wholesome food products in their own right. For a more cross-sectoral, sustainable and environmentally friendly approach, good food culture can be the perfect starting point, and these neglected legumes can play a central role.

The real power is in the hands of the consumer

Pete Ianetta : “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?”

In a balanced diet, legumes can completely replace animal proteins, but they do not play a role as important as they should in our daily diet. In Portugal, efforts have been made to increase the consumption of legumes, with schools serving one main course and one soup made from legumes each week. Although legumes have a long tradition in the country, they are seldom eaten. The Portuguese Government wants to reverse this trend by making more room for the cultivation of these crops. If we are to make significant changes to protein intake, we need to make radical changes to the consumption, production and processing of legumes. And legumes would benefit from more effective marketing. But the real power is in the hands of the consumer: if more people cast their vote in favour of sustainable solutions, governments will be forced to follow their lead.


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A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Pete Iannetta about Legumes popularity
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A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Bálint Balázs about Legumes popularity
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