Rich in proteins and minerals, legumes not only contribute to taking care of people's health but also that of the environment. Their characteristics, which include a low ecological footprint and improved soil fertility, have made them the protagonists of 2016, the International Year of Pulses according to the United Nations (UN). These are the reasons why lentils, beans and hundreds of other crops have received this honor.
They are nutritious and complete foods
Legumes are rich in nutrients and a great source of protein and fiber. “Its protein content is much higher than that of corn, wheat or rice. The combination of legumes with cereals provides an extremely complete protein source, comparable to animal protein ”, explains in a video from FAO Marcela Villareal, Director of the Organization's Office for Partnerships, Promotion and Capacity Development.
They are also rich in minerals (iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc) and B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6 and folic acid) and have a low fat content and no cholesterol.
In addition, a study led by the University of Manitoba (Canada) indicates that eating them regularly can also help control and combat obesity. “They have a number of important contributions to health. They help to manage the level of sugar in the blood, which is why they are a support in terms of cholesterol and diabetes ”, explains Villareal.
They promote sustainable agriculture
An important attribute of legumes is their ability to fix nitrogen biologically. These plants, in symbiosis with certain types of bacteria (such as Rhizobium, Bradyrhizobium), are capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that can be used by growing plants, thus improving soil fertility.
The FAO has calculated that legumes can fix between 72 and 350 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year. Furthermore, some species are capable of releasing phosphorus into the soil.
“Nitrogen and phosphors are important nutrients for growing plants. The ability to naturally generate these fertilizers means that farmers do not have to use chemicals ”, Teodardo Calles, FAO Agronomist Officer, explains to Sinc.
"They are also a crop that allows diversification. If they are included in the crop rotation, they interrupt insect cycles and allow future production to continue on the same plot of land," adds the expert.
Compared to other crops, legumes have a reduced food waste footprint, that is, a very small part of the crops is wasted, as seen in the following graph.
Agricultural production versus total volumes of food waste and volumes of food waste only of the edible part. / FAO
According to the G20 Technical Platform on Measuring and Reducing Food Loss and Waste, the contribution of pulses to total food waste is low in all regions, making them an ecological source of nutrients.
To this it contributes that they can be used for self-consumption or as commercial crops and that the residues of grain legume crops can potentially be used as animal fodder.
Mitigate climate change
Legume species have wide genetic diversity, which allows improved varieties to be selected or developed. This is particularly important for adaptation to climate change, as more climate-resistant varieties can be derived from this wide diversity.
“Scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia are currently working on the development of legumes that can grow 4 or 5 degrees higher than the usual temperature. It is a way of trying to adapt to the effects of climate change, which causes temperatures to increase, ”says Calles.
The agricultural engineer points out that by reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers, thanks to the natural production of nitrogen and phosphorus, the emission of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, is also indirectly reduced.
"Legumes fix more carbon than other crops such as corn or wheat, which also helps mitigation," says the FAO expert.
Fight rural poverty
In addition to offering a long-lasting food supply, legume crops can bring additional income to producers when sold and marketed. Legumes are high-value crops and typically fetch prices 2 to 3 times higher than cereals.
"Legumes are very versatile and can grow in very adverse climates. If a farmer has a legume crop, he has a crop of high nutritional value that, in addition to consuming, he can easily sell or store and wait for its price to rise", Calles explains.
“Introducing them into crop rotations can also help local farmers. If they only have one plant and that failure they have nothing to sell or what to eat, so we must promote its cultivation ", concludes the expert.
And they are very good
As the FAO explains on its website, one of the advantages of legumes is that they can be stored for months without losing their high nutritional value. In addition, delicious dishes are cooked with them around the world, making them a staple of many diets. The FAO page describes cooking recipes with legumes from all over the planet.
The journey of seeds around the world
According to the FAO, the production of pulses is highly concentrated. India, where these crops are an important source of protein for a largely vegetarian population, is the world's largest producer, accounting for a quarter of global production in 2013.
Canada is the largest exporter of legumes with 6.2 million tonnes of legumes (mainly peas) in 2013, followed by Australia (1.7 million tonnes), Myanmar (1.2 million tonnes), the United States (1, 1 million tons) and China (800,000 tons). Despite being the largest producer of pulses, India is also the country that imports the most: it is the main destination for a quarter of world pulses imports, followed by the European Union, China, Pakistan and Egypt.
FAO expects international trade in pulses to continue to grow. However, obstacles to productivity in developing regions may not be overcome. Because of this, the organization believes that many developing countries will continue to depend on imports to meet their needs, a situation they intend to combat.