2016 United Nations International Year of Pulses

International Year of What? Pulses: dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas, and lentils.  Think baked beans (pinto beans), chili (kidney beans), 3-bean soup or salad, hummus (chickpeas a.k.a. garbanzo beans), lentils, pasta e Faggioli (Italian soup), soupe au fistou (French soup), falafel, and dahl. You’re nodding your head now -- you do know what pulses are!  They are the supporting ingredients of some delicious meals!

The United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses.  “The International Year 2016 is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the benefits of pulses as the world embarks on efforts to achieve the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals,” declared UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon in November 2015.  He continued, “Despite strong evidence of the health and nutritional benefits of pulses, consumption of pulses remains low in many developing and developed countries. The International Year can help overcome this lack of knowledge.”

The goal in 2016 is to promote awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses, and the sustainability of this food.  Pulses have been grown, harvested, eaten, and even celebrated as an important part of the human diet for centuries. Pulses have been part of traditional diets grown by small farmers throughout the world.  The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva said in a recent news release, “Pulses are an important food crop for the food security of large proportions of populations. Yet, their nutritional value is not generally recognized and is frequently under- appreciated.” 

These dried seeds are high in protein, vital micronutrients, amino acids, B-vitamins, low in fat and sugars, and are also a great source of fiber. In case you can’t tell, pulses or legumes are one of my personal favorite foods.  That is why I am so keen on singing their praises.  According to FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva, pulses have double the protein as wheat, and triple that of rice. They are easy to store until ready to be cooked, no matter where in the world you live.  Maybe we do need to pay more attention to this overlooked little powerhouse.

The American Society for Nutrition’s Scientific Sessions at Experimental Biology 2016 annual meeting was held this past April with the topic of Pulses for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet: Emerging Research and Opportunities, in San Diego, CA. These scientists were not just talking about meeting the third world’s food needs, but also those of the first world, covering topics from the impact of pulses for intestinal health, weight loss and control, to their impact on diabetes.

The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science annual report for 2015 is titled, Little Beans, Big Opportunities: Realizing the Potential of Pulses to Meet Today’s Global Health Challenges, brings the topic home.  More than 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition, both undernutrition and overnutrition in developed and underdeveloped countries.  Malnutrition can produce cognitive problems, chronic immune problems, and a shortened life span, while overnutrition can lead to obesity and myriad related health complications.

This is a lot of professional attention to some lowly little dried peas and beans. What else can these little powerhouses of delicious nutrition do? Is there something else going on? Do Pulses have a super power? (Does the story of Jack and the Bean Stalk come to mind?)  Pulses do have another power, they are also known as Nitrogen Fixers.   Nitrogen fixing is a great benefit for the home gardener, small farmer, and even in the large agribusiness of farming because it enriches and sustains the soil by providing free nitrogen to the plants.

Nitrogen is vital to the growth of plants in our gardens; without it, plant growth is stunted even to the point of failure. But nitrogen is a gas, so how do we pull it into the soil for our plants?  We usually purchase it as a chemical fertilizer, and that can be costly.  With nitrogen fixing plants there is another, much less expensive, way -- a way that is more beneficial to the health of our soil, and ultimately to the growth of our plants. Pulse and legume plants are nitrogen fixers. With the assistance of a common type of bacteria, Rhizobium, that uses these special plants to pull the nitrogen from the air and convert this gas for storage in the roots of legume plants.  With nitrogen in its roots, the plant produces lumps called nitrogen nodules, which are harmless to the plant. When the plant dies at the end of the growing season, the nodules also die, and this is when they release the stored nitrogen into the soil. They have added free fertilizer for the next growing season, helping to sustain our soils without additional chemicals.  It makes sense that the United Nations selected Pulses this year to follow the 2015 International year of Soil.  Pulses enrich our soils.

In the book Soil will Save Us, author Kristin Ohlson discusses many ways that farmers and soil scientists today are looking to enrich and improve our soils by maintaining the soil organisms that we want to reside in our soil.  Our years of reliance on chemical fertilizers have not always been good for our soil health.  Nitrogen fixers like pulses and legumes can be a part of maintaining good soil health.  These type of plants make great cover crops after the growing season, too.  They enrich the soil throughout the winter so that the soil doesn’t dry out, keep the soil micro-organisms alive, can reduce erosion, and help incorporate more carbon into the soil.

You don’t have to wait until the fall to start the process of enriching your garden soil.  When the early spring lettuce and spinach reach their peak and fade with the growing warmth of the season, why not rotate in some pulses? These seeds are best planted after the final frost date, so the timing is perfect.  As the gardening season progresses and we are canning-jamming-freezing our produce, we will have some pulses to dry and then cook in the cold weather ahead.  To inspire you further, we have a book review on The Triumph of Seeds (pulses are seeds), and 2 book reviews on cooking with pulses, legumes, chickpeas and lentils. Bon Appetit!