Year of Pulses

The United Nations has declared 2016 the Year of Pulses. You may be asking yourself “What does that have to do with gardening?” Pulses is an agricultural term that refers to legumes (beans, peas, lentils, or chickpeas) that are harvested when seeds are dry and are used for food or animal feed. When harvested green, legumes are classified as vegetable crops rather than as pulses. Legumes that are used mainly for oil production or as cover crops are not considered pulses either.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations shared this countdown to the International Year of Pulses on their website:

10: Etymology
The word pulse originates directly from the Latin puls meaning “thick gruel, porridge, mush.”

9: Pulses vs legumes, what’s the difference?
The term “legume” refers to the plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. Pulses are a subgroup of the legume family, but the term “pulse” refers only to the dried seed. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses (learn more: What are pulses).

8: An ancient crop
Pulses have been an essential part of the human diet for centuries. In fact, archaeological remains found in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) show that ancient agricultural production of chickpeas and lentils dates back to 7000 – 8000 B.C.

7: A delicious and versatile ingredient with a long shelf-life
Pulses are part of the food culture and standard diet in most parts of the world and a key ingredient in many signature national and regional dishes, from falafel to daal to chilli and baked beans. Pulses can be stored for months on end without losing their high nutritional value providing increased food availability between harvests (get cooking: INPhO cookbook).

6: Part of the vital web of biodiversity
Pulses themselves are extremely diverse—there are hundreds of varieties grown throughout the world. Additionally, intercropping with pulses diversifies typical farming systems. If one crop fails due to drought or pests, another may rescue the total farm operation. This creates more resilient and sustainable farms and increases food and income security. Moreover, intercropping with pulses increases plant biodiversity and creates a more diverse landscape for animals and insects. By improving soil health, pulses also promote biodiversity in soil microorganisms.

5: Foster sustainable agriculture and soil protection
The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses can improve soil fertility, which improves and extends the productivity of farmland. Using pulses in intercropping systems and as cover crops can reduce soil erosion and contribute to pest and disease control. Depending on species and environmental conditions, grain and forage legumes are able to biologically fix up to 350 kg of nitrogen/ha/year.

4: Highly-water efficient
Pulses production is highly water efficient, especially when compared to other protein sources. For example, production of daal (split peas or lentils) requires 50 litres of water per kilogram. Conversely, one kilogram of chicken requires 4 325 litres of water, one kilogram of mutton requires 5 520 litres, and one kilogram of beef requires 13 000 litres of water during production. Their small water footprint makes pulses production a smart choice in drier areas and regions prone to drought.

3: An unexpected ally against climate change
Pulses species have a broad genetic diversity from which new varieties adapted to changing climate can be selected. Furthermore, the nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses eliminate dependency on synthetic fertilizers, thus producing a smaller carbon footprint and indirectly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many pulses promote higher rates of accumulation of soil carbon than cereals or grasses.

2: Economically accessible and multipurpose
In developing countries, pulses make up 75 percent of the average diet, compared to 25 percent in industrialized countries.

They provide an affordable alternative to animal protein. Since they can be used for self-consumption or as cash crops, farmers who cultivate pulses have the option to both eat and/or sell their harvest. Additionally, some pulses like pigeon peas and Bambara beans can be cultivated in very poor soils and semi-arid environments where other crops cannot be grown.

Crop residues from grain legumes can also be potentially used as animal fodder, and the heightened protein concentration from these residues improves animal health.

1: A powerful superfood
Pulses are packed with nutrients and are a fantastic source of protein. Because of their high nutritional content, pulses are a staple in emergency food baskets. Pulses are made up of about 20-25 percent of protein by weight, which is double the protein content of wheat and triple that of rice.

Pulses have a low fat content and contain zero cholesterol. The glycaemic index (an indicator of the effect on blood sugar) is also low, and they are a significant source of dietary fibre. Since they do not contain gluten, they are an ideal food for celiac patients. Additionally, pulses are rich in minerals and B-vitamins all of which play a vital role in health.

Pulses have many health benefits. Their high iron and zinc content is especially beneficial for women and children at risk of anemia. They also contain bioactive compounds that show some evidence of helping to combat cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Some research indicates that eating pulses regularly can help control and combat obesity as well.

If you would like to try growing some pulses in your garden in 2016, Southern Peas, (field peas, Crowder peas) are easy to grow and are part of traditional southern cuisine, although they are not native to the US.

Other types of beans that dry well grow under the same conditions as bush or pole beans that are eaten fresh. Simply choose a variety that is recommended for dry beans, then let the beans dry on the vine before picking.  

-Ann Barnes

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