PHOTO: Meena Kadri/Flickr
Karen Lanier
February 19, 2016

Welcome to the year of pulses! The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, and all over the world, the spotlight is shining on our legume friends, including dry beans, peas, garbanzos and lentils. From world hunger to neighborhood gardens, pulses bring out stories of relationships. These commonplace plants packed with powerful nutrition interact in complex ways with our bodies, our earth and our cultures.

What Are Pulses?

Pulses are the dry seeds of leguminous plants. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations distinguishes pulses as being specifically harvested for their dry grain, rather than any vegetables harvested green. Pulses do not include legumes grown and harvested for their oil, and they tend to have lower fat content. They also include leguminous grains used for animal feed.

Pulses are annuals whose fruit forms a pod with up to a dozen seeds inside. These seeds are food when sprouted, ground, boiled, refried or otherwise processed. Some lesser-known pulses include vetch and peanut. (Surprise! It’s a pea, not a nut, even though it is called a ground nut!) A few more pod plants, including chocolate from the cola nut family and vanilla from the orchid family, give us great products, but they’re not pulses.

The edible parts of legume plants can include the roots, as in licorice; the spring leaves and tendrils, as in peas; and the papilionaceous flowers. When picked green, the pods are usually edible, too, such as with runner beans. It is the abstinence from consuming any of these offerings while the plant matures, simply leaving the bush or vine intact until its growth cycle is complete, the pods are dry, brown and eager to split open, that nature gives us pulses.

The family tree of the pulses we eat (and many more that we don’t) holds the family names Fabaceae or Leguminosae, which are used interchangeably. The branches of the family tree are broken down into four genera, each of which also represents a geographical region where it originated. When you select seed varieties, consider the climate of the plant’s native region to determine whether it will thrive where you plant it.

  • From the New World, or the Americas, comes Phaseolus, which includes kidney beans, pinto, lima, tepary and navy beans.
  • From the Old World, or Eurasia, comes Vicia, which includes fava beans.
  • Africa and India bring Vigna, including black-eyed peas, lentils and mung beans.
  • East Asia’s genera, called Glycine, includes soybeans.

Family members are easy to recognize, whether in the form of a tree, a shrub, a vine or a forb. In addition to the fruit taking the shape of a pod, the lovely, butterfly-like flowers are a key characteristic. While most legumes are self-pollinating and don’t rely on wind or animals to spread their pollen, sweet nectar draws insects in and the flower petals part to welcome certain guests. Honeybees, bumble­bees and other relatively hefty insects weigh down the lower petal to enter and forage. While the visitors satisfy their own needs for food, they effectively distribute pollen, which causes fertilization and pods full of beans. At the same time, they spread the pollen from flower to flower, increasing genetic diversity and leading to more resilient crops.

2016: Year of Pulses

Pulses may not be very charismatic, but they do have appeal. They represent how we want to take care of our neighbors, whether those neighbors are the micro­organisms in the soil under our feet or our hungry brothers and sisters in faraway places. Over the past 30 years, there has been a significant increase in pulse consumption per capita, in developing countries, as well as in wealthy nations. The amount of pulses produced by industrialized countries has doubled, spurred by their recognition as health foods in the 1980s.

Now, rich countries are ahead of poor in pulse production, placing pulses solidly in the realm of commercial rather than subsistence products. Unfortunately, agricultural policies have promoted cereal grain production in poorer countries and marginalized pulses, as they have not been viewed as generating economic returns on investment. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, pulse consumption has decreased while the population has increased.

This year, a decade-old FAO recommendation will be carried out: “to create an enabling environment” for the pulse sector. It’s about time that the UN recognized the worthiness of beans to have their turn in the spotlight.

Benefits Of Pulses

Financial Benefits

In times of hardship, beans are good, cheap comfort food. Across the globe, traditional bean recipes represent cultural relationships that are simple and sustainable. On the flipside, there is a long history of cultural avoidance of beans for the very reason that it’s seen as poverty food. In America alone, whether it’s a hobo with a can of baked beans, the rural South with pork ’n’ beans, or the desperate college student eating nothing but beans and rice, legumes have gotten a bad rap. But they’re making a comeback.

“Pulses are staple foods for millions of poor people in developing countries, and are these days developing an even more important role as cash crops,” according to the FAO. By embracing the potential to grow your own bean crop, revising misconceptions and putting an end to generational bias, farmers can feed themselves and their families.

Human Health Benefits

The word “pulse” reminds us of our heart, and the steady, automatic muscle contractions that push blood through our circulatory system. Pulses—the food—are seeds with heart-healthy nutrition that can work wonders for our cardiovascular system.

Lexington, Ky., nutrition educator Robin Westrick, aka Chef Raw Bean, calls pulses “nature’s nearly perfect protein-fiber package.” She explains the role fiber plays in colon, heart and blood-sugar health. Insoluble fiber provides “our friendly gut bugs with the food they need to create compounds that are beneficial to the health of our colon,” as well as keeps the GI tract clean and lowers the risk of colon cancer. Soluble fiber absorbs toxins and moves them out the digestive tract and also absorbs cholesterol in the blood and lowers overall cholesterol levels.

Diabetics are encouraged to incorporate more beans into their diets to balance glucose levels. The fiber slows down digestion, so sugar is released moderately into the bloodstream.

“There is also an inhibitory effect on a-Amylase, the enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates, slowing down the process,” Westrick says. “This is beneficial for healthy blood-sugar regulation and beneficial in treating and preventing metabolic disorders, such as Type-2 diabetes.”

Vegetarianism out of necessity or by choice can reduce our strain on the environment by reducing the water and land resources it takes to raise livestock. In countries where nutritional education is more accessible, more people are eating pulses. But even traditional wisdom in early agrarian cultures taught that combining beans with corn and squash, known as the Three Sisters, provided balanced nutritional components. Corn lacks two essential amino acids that beans contain, and the seeds of the squash contain good fats that the other two lack.

Soil Health Benefits

In the ground, the Three Sisters all support and contribute to the survival of the others. Miguel Santistevan is a farmer and educator who leads youth by teaching them self-sufficiency through permaculture. He studied traditional agriculture at University of California Davis and practices it at his family farm, Sol Feliz Farm in northern New Mexico. Regardless of the potential for feeding the world through better technology, he believes that small-scale agriculture holds the most promise for regenerating the soil and the health of humanity.

Before the advent of large-scale agricultural technology, most crops were grown with dry-land farming. Santistevan explains that with dry-land farming, “it’s more important to hoe your weeds and aerate your soil than it is to irrigate.” The acequia system of northern New Mexico is an old-school irrigation technology with its roots in Spain, and it’s still used to circulate water through Three Sisters plots and much more. The water allocation system requires open communication and trust within the community and is based on sharing water rights for the good of the whole.

The way that legumes transform atmospheric nitrogen exemplifies another mutually beneficial system, conceived and perfected in nature. The seemingly magical process can be attributed to a ­symbiotic relationship with bacteria present in soil, called rhizobia. Nodules on the roots of legumes provide a habitat for the bacteria, and it converts nitrogen into forms that the plants can actually use. Not only does the leguminous host benefit, but the surrounding plants can then draw the bioavailable nitrogen from the soil, as well. In a sense, the legumes are freeing up resources that all in the plant community need to survive and thrive.

Non-legumes planted in rotation also continue to benefit. Besides fixing nitrogen, legumes feed soil microbes and leave behind beneficial residues. The FAO reports that cereal grains and oilseeds that follow one or two seasons of pulses can reduce their carbon footprint by up to 34 percent. Improved soil health means less fertilizer and lower costs to the farmer.

Growing Pulses

Care

While the Three Sisters legend explains that plants need the aid of their growing companions, pulses don’t need people all that much. Santistevan offers advice for growing beans sustainably and achieving the best return on your investment, with four simple tips: plant deep, water little, identify the strongest and work with those for the future.

“Don’t baby them,” he says. “Don’t overwater them. If you plant 100 plants the first year, look for your best 10 percent, and let 90 percent suffer and die. You might not get to eat the first year; it’s all for seed development. Maybe by year three or five, you’ll be harvesting enough for your family.”

Mounding soil and planting beans is a common practice, forming a small crater on top to hold moisture and lessen runoff. In sandy soil, the mound could become the bed border, holding water in like a small dam.

Harvest

Harvesting and threshing pulses can strengthen relationships between people by gathering for harvest celebrations. It should always be done on a sunny day, which helps ensure the beans don’t mold or rot.

Santistevan’s blog offers advice on the seasonal phases of pea harvest. “You will know the difference between peas that are ready and those that are past by the taste: ones that are ready are sweet and ones that are past taste starchier,” he writes. “Allowing the crop to mature will make more dry peas that can also make an excellent split pea soup that is made by running the dry peas through the course setting on a grain mill.”

Threshing, separating the edible grain from the chaff, can be fun for groups and work parties. Ryan Koch with Seedleaf, a community-gardening organization based in Lexington, Ky., recommends the “pillowcase method” for his garden harvest parties. He learned the method at a workshop at Salamander Springs, an Appalachian farm where permaculture expert Susana Lein grows the Three Sisters.

He explains the steps: “First, take enough beans (still in pods) to cook up a big pot for your family, and throw them into an old pillowcase or other cloth bag. Next, raise it up over your head and vigorously whack it down on the ground as hard as you can, over and over. The beans will naturally fall out of the cracked pods and are ready for winnowing.”

Wind winnowing is simply blowing off the excess husks. After the pods are removed, the skin-like membranes are light enough that a gentle breeze can carry them away. Pour the beans from one bowl or bucket to a second, in the wind or in front of a fan. Repeat several times until almost no fragments cling to the seeds.

Usage

Producing less waste is another way that by planting pulses, people help restore ecological balance, both on the small scale and global scale. Santistevan doesn’t waste the pods or stems of his beans after harvesting. “All the material that is not beans or peas is saved in a tarp and thrown in the chicken coop,” he says. “The chickens will make use of any beans or peas accidentally left out and will also stir in the dry plant material (carbon) with their manure to make composting material that we will gather from the coop a couple of times a year.”

The carbon footprint of legumes compared to equal amounts of animal protein is drastically minor. To raise 1 kg of lamb, 39.2 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted in the process. For 1 kg of lentils, only 0.9 kg of carbon dioxide is produced, including all emissions on the farm and off the farm. Consider how much processing and transportation is required to put meat in the hands of the consumer, versus the minimal steps required for pulses.

The durability and longevity of dry beans and peas lends to long-term storage, another pro on the long list of benefits. Less food is wasted and the nutritious little package can deliver all year-round.

Whether as part of the three sisters of Native American early agriculture, as an agent of biochemical nitrogen conversion, or as a reliable means of meeting the growing human population’s demands for sustainable protein sources, pulses stimulate a healthy current of give-and-take throughout their life cycle.

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