5 Ways in Which Pulses Can Help the World

CC BY 2.0. Vera & Jean-Christophe -- Beans for sale in Burma

There are good reasons for why the United Nations named 2016 the 'Year of Pulses'.

Beans, chickpeas, and lentils don’t look like anything special. They tend not to produce jaw-dropping culinary spectacles, at least not in the way that beautiful arrays of fresh seasonal vegetables and roasted cuts of meat do. They’re homely and simple – not something you’d think of right away when seeking a solution to climate change, widespread hunger, disappearing biodiversity, and other big problems.

Despite their humble appearance, however, these members of the pulse family are impressively powerful. That’s why the United Nations has named 2016 the Year of Pulses, in an effort to push these little-known seeds into the spotlight and educate people about their tremendous usefulness.

The UN has released a small book online called “Pulses: Nutritious Seeds for a Sustainable Future,” which explains what pulses are, which varieties exist, how to care for and cook pulses, and how they’re grown; but the most interesting chapter assesses why pulses are a powerful tool for bettering our world. After reading it, you’ll never look at a jar of dried beans in the same way again.

Why are pulses so amazing?

1. They are highly nutritious.

Pulses are packed with nutrients. They are low in fat and sodium, high in iron, fibre, folate, and potassium, gluten- and cholesterol-free, and have a low glycemic index (slow to digest and release energy over longer period of time). They are rich in vitamins and minerals and are an excellent way to get protein without eating meat.

2. They make you healthy.

A healthy diet is one of the best defenses against illness, and pulses are a unique force from the plant world that can reinforce health and prevent disease. Pulses are known to aid in weight management by stabilizing blood sugar and insulin levels, thanks to high fibre content. Pulses can reduce risk of heart disease, as they’re high in soluble fibre, which can lower cholesterol. High in iron, pulses can combat anemia, particularly when paired with vitamin C. They’re an excellent source of plant-based protein that’s free from the residual hormones and antibiotics typically used in animal agriculture.

3. They can withstand the effects of climate change.

As growing conditions become more extreme and unpredictable for farmers all around the world, pulses are a good answer to mitigating, adapting, and reducing the effects of climate change. The crops are hardier than most others and able to withstand droughts and floods. Some are deep-rooting crops that do not compete with other crops for surface water. They require little, if any, fertilizer, as they are natural nitrogen-fixers, pulling it from the atmosphere into the soil. “Furthermore, pulses improve the soil’s carbon sequestration, meaning that part of natural CO2 emissions are absorbed by the earth.”

4. They contribute to soil biodiversity.

The ability of pulses to fix nitrogen in the soil is remarkable. The UN book states that pulses can add anywhere from 30 to 300 kg of nitrogen into the soil per hectare, depending on the type of crop (with cover crops and animal forage crops fixing the most). Pulses also release hydrogen gas into the soil, up to 5,000 liters per hectare per day. The need for less fertilizer means less of a burden on the soil. Crop residues can be fed to livestock, adding more nitrogen to animals’ diets.

“Pulses help to maintain and increase vital microbial biomass and activity in the soil. In this way, pulses act as catalysts by nourishing the development of those organisms primarily responsible for promoting soil structure and nutrient availability.”

In other words, pulses are a rare crop that leaves the soil healthier after it's been harvested, than before.

5. Pulses are a key to global food security.

Pulses are cheap compared to other protein sources, such as meat, dairy, and fish, and when paired with grains, can turn a simple diet into a highly nutritious one. Pulses are shelf-stable and can keep for long periods of time without losing nutritional value. This reduces the amount of food wasted or spoiled prior to preparation.

Pulses require relatively little water and can be grown in arid regions where many other crops would not survive. Subsistence farmers can eat part of their crops, sell the extras, and enjoy higher yields when pulses are paired or rotated with other crops; this reduces their vulnerability to crop failure.

Rather than thinking of pulses as a “poor man’s protein,” as some people living in developed nations tend to do, it’s time to explore and celebrate the astonishing ability of these little seeds to make the world a better place for all.