Growing more Legumes and Pulses can open new markets and half the need for Nitrogen Fertiliser

Growing more Legumes and Pulses can open new markets and half the need for Nitrogen Fertiliser
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Crop rotations with beans and peas offer more sustainable and nutritious food production

Farmers in the UK should grow more legumes as part of their crop rotation to improve public health and reduce reliance on chemical fertilisers, researchers believe.

Most weight loss and healthy eating plans include a lot of legumes

and they are a staple of any vegan or vegetarian diet. There’s a ready market for the product from consumers who would pay more for a local, sustainable, and preferably organic product.

The Fabaceae or Leguminosae (commonly known as the legume, pea, or bean) family is the third largest family of flowering plants, consisting of over 20,000 species.

Although used interchangeably, “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” have different meanings. legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that would include its leaves, stems, and pods.

A pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. A pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse.

The whole legume plant can be used in agricultural applications (as cover crops or in livestock feed or fertilisers), while the seeds or pulses can be sold directly to the end consumer.

All crops need nitrogen in order to grow and, for most crops, farmers have to provide nitrogen using fertilisers. However, it has become increasingly clear that conventional fertilisers are not sustainable–they require significant energy to produce, they are depleting finite resources and they pollute the surrounding environments. 

Most farmers apply nitrogen fertilisers to soils to promote plant growth. But nitrogen is energy intensive to produce and using too much pollutes surrounding land and waterways. 

Rotating staple crops such as barley, wheat, and rapeseed with nitrogen-fixing legumes such as green lentils and Broad Beans (fava beans) offers “significant environmental benefits”, according to the study led by Bangor University. 

According to the researchers, growing legumes provides a natural way to give soils the nitrogen they need, while producing healthy, nutritious food.

A trial in Scotland found that by including legumes in their crop rotation, farmers were able to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilisers by almost half while maintaining the same nutritional output of their crops.

Beans and peas were once a staple food item for people in UK.

But having fallen out of fashion much of the country’s production is exported to other countries, or fed to livestock. That is rapidly changing, as more people switch to a plant-based or flexitarian diet. 

Scientists agree public health would improve if people ate more beans and lentils, which are rich in protein, fibre, folate, iron, potassium and vitamins. 

“Our results strengthen evidence on the positive role that healthy diet transitions could make to environmental sustainability,” said co-author Dr David Styles, from the University of Limerick in Ireland.

“Legumes provide a healthier balance of carbohydrates, protein and fibre compared with cereal crops, and could improve the nutritional profile of the food we eat.”

The study is published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

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