Ready to launch: Why pulses are the future of food

Peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas have been around for centuries, but they are poised to enter the spotlight like never before

Can an old food become new again?

Peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas have been staples for centuries, but pulses are on the verge of becoming the next big thing. Next year, 2016, is the United Nations’ International Year of Pulses (IYoP) and there is a fistful of good reasons why these crops could become the healthy, sustainable food trend for the coming decades.

And it’s something producers should be paying attention to because it has big implications for their cropping practices, the health of their soil, and their bottom line.

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Consumers are asking for more protein, a meat alternative, an allergy-free and gluten-free food — and pulses have it all. Health professionals are looking for ways to treat diseases such as diabetes and high cholesterol with food instead of just prescriptions — pulses fit that bill. And society wants farmers to reduce inputs and water use and improve the soil — pulses can do that, too.

So there are many reasons why pulse demand could take off. But will the International Year of Pulses do the trick?

That’s a question I put to people from one end of the value chain to the other at the recent Canadian Special Crops Association conference in Calgary. Here’s what they had to say:

“I look at what the International Year did for quinoa and the uptake of that,” was the response of Alberta Pulse Growers vice-chair D’Arcy Hilgartner, who grows green peas, yellow peas, and fababeans at his farm near Camrose.

“Most consumers still don’t know what a pulse is,” he said, “but they’re looking for more healthy and nutritious food. They’re also going to like the sustainability story that comes with pulses.

“It’s good for the environment, fixes its own nitrogen, uses less water. Pulses have so many attributes that I’m so excited about and I’m hoping in the next year we can promote more.”

That will happen, predicted fellow director Don Shepert, and farms will change as a result.

“I believe that growers will continue to increase the amount of acres grown due to the fact that demand will continue to increase,” said Shepert, who farms near St. Paul.

Not surprisingly, the deputy director of procurement for the United Nations World Food Program looks at the potential of pulses through a different lens. Mack Ramachandran spoke about how pulses can combat malnourishment in developing countries, especially for children who not only suffer from the health effects of inadequate diet but also don’t do as well in school. But Ramachandran also knows that increased consumption of pulses in the first world will drive a lot of other things.

“We need to promote the cultivation and consumption of pulses on a mass scale and I think something like IYoP can bring a significant amount of awareness, which then drives investment in growing it, distributing it, feeding supply chains for it and consuming it,” he said.

Ted Menzies had yet another take. He’s been growing pulses for 30 years and says farmers should build on this year’s efforts for the 2015 International Year of the Soils by talking about how pulses are good for soils.

“(This year) has provided an opportunity for farmers to actually share with people how they conserve the soil on their farm, and farmers have been doing this because it’s part of their livelihood — it’s part of saving their land for future generations,” said Menzies, who is also president of Crop Life Canada.

“That’s a critical piece of the story that needs to be told,” said Pulse Canada CEO Gordon Bacon, who talked about giving people “a reason to be passionate about pulses.”

“When they understand the value that pulses can bring to them, their family, their community and — on a global basis — the food supply, they’re going to engage and they’re going to look at pulses very differently,” he predicted.

The CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council is just as enthusiastic as his Canadian counterpart, predicting IYoP “will trigger a landslide of interest in pulse crops.”

For Tim McGreevy, the core target is millennials.

“I believe they are ready for this message,” said McGreevy. “This age group embraced hummus and sent sales of this product through the stratosphere in the past five years.

“The International Year will provide the platform to re-energize the pulse category, and launch new and creative ways to include peas, lentils, and beans in our diets.”

And what’s my view? Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a believer, too — that’s why I choose to grow pulses, serve on Alberta Pulse Growers, and chair the Canadian committee for International Year of Pulses 2016.

So yes! IYoP will make a difference in the long term. Consumer understanding will grow, and so will consumption and demand for more pulses.

But I see more than that. This will be a pivot point on which genetic, breeding, and agronomic research will also build.

That is just the kind of opportunity we want in agriculture and one we should all support.

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