FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

Legumes can help fight climate change, hunger and obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean

Agriculture is part of the ancestral heritage of the region; it keeps nitrogen in the soil and has unique nutritional qualities.

March 7, Santiago de Chile - United Nations proclaimed 2016 as the International Year of Pulses in recognition of the key role they play in food and nutrition security, adaptation to climate change, human health and soil.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, legumes have particular relevance for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"The region is originally the centre for many vegetables. They are part of our ancestral culture and are a cornerstone of our current power "said Raul Benitez, Regional Representative of FAO.

Much of the vegetable production in the region is in the hands of family farmers so they play a role in rural development, and cultivation helps mitigate climate change by keeping nitrogen in the soil.

In addition, production and consumption are key to addressing the growing obesity in the region affecting on average 22% of adults in the region with hunger affecting 34 million men, women and children.

A complete food

Legumes are essential for a healthy diet. Although they are small, they are full of protein, containing twice the ones in corn and three times more than in rice.

"They are a fantastic source of vegetable protein, are low in fat, cholesterol free and gluten and rich in minerals and vitamins," said Benitez.

When eaten with cereals they form a complete protein, which is cheaper than animal protein, and therefore more accessible to lower-income families.

"This mix is the basis of the traditional diet in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, such as beans with corn or beans with rice that so many of us grew up eating," Benitez said.

Food for humans and for the soil

Legumes not only contribute to healthy eating, but are a source of income for millions of family farmers who plant them in alternation with other crops for their ability to replenish soil nitrogen, improving the sustainability of production.

Legumes are also one of the few plants capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia and converting this to enriched soil, unlike most other plants that take only the nitrogen from the soil without returning any.

This allows climate change mitigation and reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers, whose manufacture involves intensive energy consumption, which emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Their role in generating rural employment in Latin America and the Caribbean is also important, particularly in the sector of family farming, as they are one of the leading crops in this sector.

A genetic treasure for future generations

According to FAO, the great diversity of beans and other legumes in the region represents a genetic treasure to create new varieties that may be needed to address climate change.

"However, many communities are losing these ancient varieties because of the global homogenisation, which favours only a handful of crops and food, belittling others," said Benitez.

According to the FAO, global diets have become increasingly homogeneous and similar, and global food supply depends mostly on wheat, corn and soybeans, along with meat and dairy products.

During the International Year of Pulses, countries must make a great effort to reverse this phenomenon, preserving the genetics associated with culture and knowledge of indigenous peoples that have improved legumes over hundreds of years in the region.

Allies in the fight against hunger

According to FAO, Latin America and the Caribbean not only have the distinction of being the original source of beans and other legumes, but are known for having the most progress made in the fight against hunger.

Pulses can be key allies for the region to reach its ambitious goal of ending hunger by 2025, the date assumed by the main regional agreement on this matter, the Plan for Food Security, Nutrition and Hunger Eradication of the Commonwealth of Independent States Latin American and Caribbean, CELAC.