Pulses aren’t just a human vital sign—they could very well prove vital in the future health of both people and the planet.
Pulses are the dried seeds of plants in the legume family—dried beans, lentils and peas, for example. The prairie provinces are a major producer of the world’s pulse supply: Canada accounts for about 35 percent of global pulse trade each year; in 2011, Canada exported 4.7 million tonnes of pulses worth almost $2.7 billion.
Nearly 75 percent of Canada’s total pulse production is exported, as Canadians consume small amounts of pulses compared to many other places in the world. There’s a movement to change this, however, on both a local and international scale: the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, and both individual farmers and larger organizations are promoting pulses as a regular part of the Canadian diet.
Overcoming our cultural leaning towards meat-and-potatoes-based meals, however, isn’t going to happen quickly. John Schneider, owner of Gold Forest Grains—a certified organic heirloom-grain farm near Morinville—has noticed a small but gradual increase in the demand for pulses from his customers.
“The advantage that I have over a lot of farmers, I guess, is just the sheer volume of people that I talk to on almost a daily basis,” Schneider says, of his weekly sales at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market. “We have customers coming up to us, especially at the farmers’ market, all the time—hundreds of customers every day. You get a lot of feedback, and I’m not afraid of asking questions.”
Health is the primary answer to the question of why more and more people are substituting vegetarian proteins, like pulses, for meat. Pulses are rich in protein (20 to 30 percent by weight), high in fibre, very low in fat and sodium, and contain substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals. They also have a low glycemic index, meaning they do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar after being consumed, and are therefore beneficial for maintaining energy levels throughout the day and preventing Type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that eating a diet rich in pulses will significantly reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, which can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Pulses are also cheap—much less expensive than any type of animal protein, especially if purchased dried, in bulk. Canned versions are slightly more expensive due to the extra processing and packaging, though a big can of beans is still much cheaper than a steak.
The only pulses that Schneider currently grows on his 250-acre farm, in rotation with his heirloom wheat and other grains, are red lentils and yellow peas. This year he’s expanding the roster to include chickpeas, pinto beans and a few other varieties of dried beans. The expansion was driven partially by his own desire for those foods—he and his family have adopted what he calls a “flexitarian” diet, in which they eat meat only occasionally and pulses feature prominently—as well as consumer demand.
The Alberta Pulse Growers Commission (APGC), a non-profit organization funded by industry levies that has a mandate to support the 5000-plus Alberta farmers who grow pulses, has been campaigning to increase Canada’s per capita consumption of pulses.
“There’s been a real effort to let people know: A) what a pulse is; and B) how nutritious they are, and the fact that they’re economical and they’re sustainable, that they’re grown here in North America in great amounts, and that they’re very healthy in terms of a lot of disease prevention and just overall health,” Allison Ammeter says.
Ammeter is chair of the APGC, chair of the Canadian International Year of Pulses committee and a farmer who grows pulses and grains on her 2000-acre farm near Sylvan Lake. She notes that the outreach activities the APGC has planned are quite robust: workshops and talks with people in the food industry as well as the general public; lunch-and-learns with the medical community with the aim to have medical professionals promote the health benefits of a pulse-rich diet to patients; a cross-Canada travelling museum exhibit that was just in town at FarmTech; a slew of recipes, cooking tips and other information on both the APGC website (pulse.ab.ca) and PulsePledge.com.
“It’s very true in Canada, and I would say also in Europe: we are not people where pulses have been part of our daily diet over the generations,” Ammeter says. “I think it really comes down to a hereditary thing that many of those cultures have grown up having beans or lentils or peas [for] breakfast-dinner-supper—whereas we’ve been meat-and-potatoes people throughout most of North America and Europe, for generations.
“I think as we become more health conscious, and perhaps more conscious about the grocery budget, people are starting to add a lot more pulses,” she continues. Ammeter notes that she’s raised her kids to eat pulse-based dishes that were completely absent from her own childhood on a farm in Saskatchewan, such as chickpeas in hummus, lentils in soup and bean flours in desserts—the latter of which she suggests as an easy way to sneak in a serving of pulses without even noticing.
Another major reason for growing pulses—whether or not they end up on people’s plates—is their benefit to the soil. Legumes have a remarkable ability to “fix” nitrogen in the ground, which increases soil fertility immensely; unlike the vast majority of other crops, pulses leave the soil in better condition than when they were planted. For this reason, they are an invaluable aspect of organic farming: planting them in rotation with other crops builds soil fertility and therefore improves future yields.
“Our wheat production requires a legume base for the nutrients in the soil and [for] the ability to grow high-protein wheat, we need to have a legume rotation,” Schneider explains, offering another reason for why he’s diversifying his pulse plantings this year. “Right now, the only way we do that is with peas, yellow peas, and they’re sold as animal feed. It just kind of goes against what I believe. If I can grow legumes for human consumption, that then feeds the wheat acres next year, then that’s a win-win for everybody.”
Conventional farmers, however, can get away without planting pulses because of their heavy use of chemical fertilizer. This, combined with the ubiquitous use of Round Up to kill weeds, results in ailing soil, translating to ailing crops and the ever-increasing need to supplement growth with fertilizers. The UN declared 2015 the International Year of Soils; following with pulses this year was a natural progression due to the direct correlation
between the two.
The recent increase in media attention on pulses is only one small step, however, in what will have to be a sustained, widespread effort to counter generations of pro-meat consumption and pro-conventional farming—especially in Alberta.
“We’ve been told our entire lives how important meat is,” Schneider says. “The meat lobby is so huge in Western Canada—and the US for that matter, just the western world in general. … You’re always hesitant to say anything bad about meat because you get sued; it’s just crazy.”
Schneider points to a famous example of this: the 1996 lawsuit brought against Oprah Winfrey by Texan cattle ranchers after she aired a show—during the height of the mad cow scare—featuring a guest who discussed controversial practices in the beef industry. While the lawsuit was defeated in court, it set a strong enough precedent that it still gives people pause some 20 years later.
“I’m the anomaly in the way I think about soil and life in general when it comes to farmers here in Alberta,” Schneider says with a wry chuckle. “I see no evidence of that [change] whatsoever, especially in Alberta. Saskatchewan, actually … is one of the leading provinces, if not the leading province, in … organic acreage. It is growing, but no: I don’t see any widespread shift anytime soon.
“Like anything, it’s just driven by the market,” he continues. “Consumers are going to have to start demanding the things that are important to them. Right now there’s enough counter intelligence out there that people want to believe, that they should eat more meat; meat is good for you. That’s what they want to hear. … There’s just going to have to be some collective understanding of what is true with regards to human nutrition, before there’s any change.”