Pulses are an important part of a healthy diet. But many of us are confused about what exactly they are and why we should grow and eat them. Many polytunnel gardeners grow a range of fruits, vegetables and herbs. But fewer take the time to consider whether they could grow pulses in their polytunnels. In order to determine whether or not this is a possibility, or even something we want to do, let’s take a closer look at this important dietary component.
What Are Pulses?
Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. They grow in pods and come in a wide range of shapes sizes and colours. While all pulses are legumes, not all legumes are pulses. The term ‘pulses’ is used only to apply to crops that are harvested for their dry grains. Crops harvested while they are still green are not classified as pulses – so that excludes green beans and green peas harvested before full maturity.
Hundreds of different pulses are grown and eaten around the world. These are classified into a number of categories:
Dried broad beans/ fava beans
Other minor pulses.
World Pulses Day was celebrated on February 10th. With a growing interest in following a vegan diet to fight the climate crisis, this seems a good time to look at the future of pulses in the UK in a little more depth.
The History of Pulses in the UK
Beans and peas were once a far more integral part of the British diet. Meat and dairy were expensive, and most of the population could not often afford them. It was only in the early Middle Ages, after the Black Death dramatically reduced the population, that meat became more affordable for the poorer classes. Meat consumption gradually rose until, in the Victorian era, wealthier classes ate meat daily and lower income families generally 2-3 times a week.
Historical pulse consumption rates are difficult to establish with any certainty. But research shows that as meat consumption rose, it replaced an earlier dependency on broad beans and dried peas. By the 18th Century, broad beans were stigmatised as ‘poor man’s meat’ and animal feed. They were no longer used at all in elite cooking.
Of course, British people did not eliminate pulses from their diets altogether. But of the evolution of which pulses were eaten very much ties in with the history of the British Empire. Over the centuries, traditional UK pulses were replaced by New World bean species – such as the navy beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) now used in the millions of tins of baked beans that are now purchased here every day.
Here, we eat fewer pulses than in most parts of the world. Mostly in the form of baked beans, though also, increasingly in recent years, lentils, chickpeas and other Asian pulses to feed a growing interest in curries, hummus, and other world cuisine.
But only in the last decade or so has there been a resurgence of interest in home-grown pulses – to replace the imported ones and provide more sustainable and eco-friendly protein sources.
What Pulses Can We Grow in the UK?
We have long our connection with home-grown pulses to the extent that traditional British-grown pulses are unfamiliar to many. Home gardeners are likely familiar with broad beans – but less familiar with growing them to full maturity and using them as a dry pulse.
By far the most commonly grown pulse in the UK is the field bean/broad bean (Vicia faba). But most of the crop is used for animal feed, or exported to feed markets in Egypt, Japan and elsewhere. The population here eats far less of this useful crop than we could. There is great potential to increase local consumption of this crop as a pulse.
In the UK marrowfat peas, large blue peas and dry green peas are other pulse crops. But while these are consumed by the population, they are consumed in far lower quantities than they once were. There is great opportunity to increase our consumption of these traditional pulses that can easily be grown right here in the UK.
Interestingly, there is also potential to increase the types of pulses that we grow here. In recent years, commercial trials into lupins, lentils and chickpeas in more southern regions have all had moderately successful results.
As a home polytunnel gardener, there is also potential to branch out, and grow small quantities of certain other beans or peas for drying. The extra protection a polytunnel can provide could allow you to produce beans which usually require a slightly longer season and warmer temperatures than your area ordinarily affords.
Why Eating Pulses is an Eco-Friendly Choice
One of the reasons why we should all be eating more pulses is that it is an eco-friendly choice. Eating pulses (especially home grown or locally grown ones) can allow you to reduce the negative impact you have on our planet in a range of different ways.
Pulses as a Protein Source (To Reduce Meat Consumption)
As awareness of the climate crisis grows, more and more people are realising the toll that meat-eating takes on our planet. One of the best ways all of us can cut our carbon footprints and live more sustainably is by eating less meat. (Or, of course, cutting out meat altogether.)
As you may or may not recall from high school science lessons, protein is made up of amino acids, nine of which must be obtained from the food we eat. A ‘complete’ protein source is one which provides all these essential amino acids. All meat, seafood, eggs and dairy are compete protein sources – but you can still definitely get enough of all the essential amino acids through a vegetarian or vegan diet.
It is easier than you might imagine to get all the amino acids you require in a vegan diet. Though most plant-based protein sources are not ‘complete’, you can easily combine two or more vegetarian foods to make sure you are getting all the amino acids. One easy to remember combination that gives all a combined complete protein is a grain, such as rice, wheat, or any other wholegrain, plus a pulse.
They Help Combat Climate Change
If you are already a keen gardener, you will no doubt be aware of the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes. By co-operating with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules, they reduce or eliminate the need to add additional nitrogen fertilizers.
When a nitrogen fertilizer is used, soil micro-organisms convert some of this nitrogen into nitrous oxide. This is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). It represents around 46% of the greenhouse gas emissions from world-wide agriculture.
Since nitrogen fertilizers are not required for these crops, they use half the energy inputs of other crops. They can also help to reduce the need to add nitrogen fertilizer to crops grown alongside or after them.
They Help Keep the Soil Healthy
As nitrogen fixers, pulses also help to keep soil healthy, and enrich the soil where they are grown. Pulse crops actually produce a number of different compounds that feed soil microbes and promote good soil health. When included in a crop rotation plan, and companion planted or intercropped with other plants, they help us manage and improve the soil in a sustainable way.
They Are Water-Wise Crops
Water shortages are not generally a concern here in the UK – and in fact we often have the opposite problem! But we are living in a global system, and must always consider the water use associated with everything we eat, buy and use.
Pulses use ½ to 1/10 the water used to provide other sources of protein like meat. For example, while it takes, on average, 1,857 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, it takes just 43 gallons of water to produce a pound of pulses.
Many pulse crops are adapted to dry environments and are well-suited to arid areas. Pulses like peas and lentils also extract water from a shallower depth, leaving more water in the soil for the following year’s crop. This means that water use efficiency is increased for the entire crop rotation.
Why Eating Pulses is a Healthy Choice
Of course, eating pulses is not only good for the environment and for humanity as a whole. It is also a good idea for our own personal health. Pulses are a low fat source of protein. They also contain important vitamins and minerals such as iron, potassium and folate. They are also a good source of dietary fibre.
Numerous studies have shown that diets rich in pulses can keep you healthy, and reduce the risk of a range of different acute and chronic diseases. Eating them can also help you to maintain a healthy body weight and including them in a healthy, balanced diet can also help to regulate your mood.
Do you eat plenty of pulses? Do you grow your own, or source them locally? Let us know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.