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The Role of Pulses in Future Food Systems

10 September 20218 min reading

As the UN Food Systems Summit approaches, the pulse industry is primed to position itself as a solution to both the climate crisis and global hunger. With the need for a holistic solution increasingly apparent, pulses represent a solid foundation for the world’s food systems to move towards a more diverse, sustainable and resilient future.

Cindy Brown
President
Global Pulse Confederation


On September 23 2021, the UN the Food Systems Summit is taking place in New York City. The summit will discuss how we can leverage global food systems to aid in the achievement of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, a series of objectives designed to help combat poverty, climate change, hunger and inequality. For those in the pulse industry, it is an opportunity to present pulses as a key player in future food systems as they take on these issues.

The agri-business sector is facing a serious challenge: how to feed a global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 while simultaneously dealing with the effects of climate change. Even with the population at its current levels, 820 million people go to bed hungry at night and an additional two billion run a high risk of malnutrition. This, combined with the ongoing impact of COVID-19, the growing loss of biodiversity in ecosystems and soil degradation in farmlands, among other issues, makes this challenge all the more complex and far-reaching. 

With the IPCC’s 6th assessment predicting rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, it is inevitable that farming crops in almost every country in the world will become increasingly difficult. The report also highlighted the urgent need to greatly reduce not only carbon dioxide but also methane, a powerful greenhouse gas produced heavily in animal livestock farming. 

The need for sustainable practises to be introduced at every level of the agri-business sector is thus essential when it comes to tackling the issues highlighted by the SDGs. Since, as the UN states, these issues are intrinsically linked both to each other and to the world’s food systems, it is clear that a holistic approach is required. Pulses, with their long-held slogan of “Healthy People, Healthy Planet”, can provide such an approach.  

PULSES: THE SUSTAINABLE SUPERFOOD

Since the UN’s introduction of the International Year of Pulses in 2016 and the subsequent designation of February 10 as World Pulses Day, knowledge and understanding about the economic, environmental and nutritional benefits of producing and consuming pulses have been gaining attention on the global stage. 

In terms of mitigating the effects of climate change, pulses are key to sustainable agriculture. Pulses are nitrogen-fixing crops, meaning they have a much lower carbon footprint than other food sources. Since they draw their nitrogen from the air, they do not require nitrogen fertilizers, which are responsible for just under half of the total greenhouse gases produced by the agriculture industry. These nitrogen-fixing qualities also mean that pulse plants enrich the surrounding soil by leaving behind nitrogen-rich residues for the next crop. Consequently, when pulses are grown in rotation with other crops, it creates a large and diverse ecosystem that supports and maintains soil fertility. In rural areas, planting pulses can also help reduce poverty as they allow farmers to diversify their crops as well as offering higher profit margins than cereal grains.

Equally, pulses consume a fraction of the amount of water consumed by other proteins. They need only 43 gallons of water per pound compared to 1,857 gallons for beef, 469 gallons for chicken and 216 gallons for soybeans. Pulses are also versatile crops that can be grown in almost every continent of the world - even in countries with low rainfall, deep-rooted pulses can reach sources of water and nutrients in deep soil layers. 

Not only are pulses good for the health of the planet, they are also incredibly nutritious. Compared with cereals, they provide two or three times more plant-based protein and contain amino acids that complement those found in grains and cereals. Pulses are packed full of micronutrients, are a good source of iron and contain a rich variety of vitamins and minerals. Add this to the fact that they are affordable, versatile and have a long shelf life and it’s evident that pulses are a serious contender in the fight against hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity.

THE INCREASING DEMAND FOR PULSES

Pulses have long been a staple in the diets of emerging and developing countries, including India and many African countries, and in recent years demand in the West has been on the rise. This is mainly due to the increasing popularity of the plant-based diet, which is gaining traction as a solution to both individual health and environmental factors. 

Pulses play a key role in the plant-based diet and are often the main source of protein. Although traditionally consumed in their whole form, exciting innovations in the alt-protein industry have led to the development of pulses and pulse ingredients into new products that can replace meat, fish and dairy. As a result, pulse ingredient processing plants are rapidly opening up in Canada, Australia and the U.S and pulse farmers have a brand new market to whom they can sell their crops. 

Currently making the biggest waves in the alt-protein industry is plant-based meat, with companies such as Impossible Meat and Beyond Burger crafting incredibly realistic burgers from pea proteins. As a result, pea production in Canada is climbing, increasing by almost 30% since 2018, with farmers in Western Canada selling peas to companies such as UK-based Meatless Farms. In 2020, Roquette opened the world’s largest pea processing plant in Manitoba and stated plans to buy 5,000 tons of Manitoba-grown yellow peas in its first year of operation. Pea protein is a hugely popular ingredient in the alt-protein space thanks to its neutral flavour and high protein content and is also being developed into plant-based dairy alternatives. Chile-based food tech company NotCo uses a patented AI platform to develop its milk alternative, which is made using pea proteins. The company has raised a total of $360 million and is said to be the Beyond Meat of Latin America. Meanwhile, plant-based seafood brand Good Catch has created a range of fish sticks, fish cakes and crab cakes composed of a range of pulses including peas, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans and navy beans.

Fundamentally, plant-based products are no longer niche; they are steadily making their way into global diets as more and more people want to take advantage of the nutritional and environmental benefits of consuming less animal products. And with the global plant protein market predicted to hit $162 billion by 2030, there is plenty of room for pulses to grow in the future of food systems.          

SHINING THE LIGHT ON PULSES AT THE UN FOOD SYSTEMS SUMMIT

As the UN Food Systems Summit approaches, the pulse industry is primed to position itself as a solution to both the climate crisis and global hunger. With the need for a holistic solution increasingly apparent, pulses represent a solid foundation for the world’s food systems to move towards a more diverse, sustainable and resilient future. Food security and sustainability are inextricably intertwined and the double ability of pulses to provide a nutritious, affordable food source whose production contributes to the mitigation of global warming makes them an invaluable resource in the current climate.  

As Gordon Bacon, former head of Pulse Canada said in an interview with the Manitoba Cooperator, “Consumers ultimately get what they want and they want agriculture to have a less harmful impact on the environment…That’s the opportunity. That to me is the future of food.” 

Big changes can be made when consumers align their buying habits with positive action for the environment and the population. But that is not enough; greater awareness of the benefits pulses bring to society, the economy and the environment is necessary in order to increase pulse consumption and production. At an industry level, it is common knowledge that pulses contribute to healthy people and a healthy planet but for real progress to occur, it is necessary for this to be championed throughout the Food System Summit at a governmental level. 

We saw during the COVID-19 pandemic how fragile our food systems are and it’s no coincidence that sales of pulses skyrocketed around the world as consumers looked for a stable source of nourishment within a situation of extreme instability. With an ever-increasing hunger problem in a growing population facing the inevitable and irreversible effects of climate change, now is the time to bet on an industry that, if properly handled by both national and international governing bodies, has the power to alleviate these issues. 


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