Celebrating the dry seeds of life


World Pulses Day, 10 February, highlights the unique benefits of pulses

Pulses are vital for good health. ©FAO/Eduardo Soteras

08/02/2024

There is a growing trend to produce and consume sustainable food motivated both by concerns for health and for the world that future generations will inherit. Often we forget about the secret weapon in the sustainability toolbox: pulses. Luckily, every year, World Pulses Day (10 February) reminds us of their crucial role in making agriculture and our diets more  eco-friendly, carbon-neutral and low-impact. The day carries on the work of the 2016 International Year of Pulses, which was facilitated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Pulses – a versatile subgroup of legumes cultivated worldwide for their nutritious dry seeds – encompass thousands of varieties, including beans, peas, and lentils.

Cultivating pulses has ecological benefits. Their unique ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere enhances soil fertility and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers. Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production drop while crop yield increases. Pulses can be used as soil cover and enhance water efficiency and soil regeneration.

Pulses have strong nutritonal and health benefits too. As,  A great source of a number of key nutrients, they are rich in protein, a valuable source of  dietary fibre, low in fat, and provide important micronutrients.

Pulses have a long shelf-life and help increase the diversity of diets. ©FAO/Samuel Aranda; ©FAO/Nozim Kalandarov

Safety first!

To maximise the benefits to the consumer, pulses need to be safe, and similar to any food product, they  may be exposed to biological, chemical, and physical hazards. Harmful bacteria may contaminate pulses during growing or processing; improper storage conditions and handling may lead to mycotoxin production from molds,or the  presence of stones and other foreign materials. Chemical residues from pesticides used during cultivation or  environmental contaiminants can be present on pulses if proper controls are not followed.

To ensure that the nutritious qualities of pulses are preserved and they are also safe for human consumption, it is important to follow a farm to fork risk-based approach along the chain with good agricultural and manufacturing practices. The Codex Alimentarious Commission of FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) has developed Codex standards for beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, cow peas, and field beans that outline the fundamental attributes these pulses should have to guarantee their safety and quality characteristics,  including important requirements on contaminants, hygene, packaging, and labelling of pulses.

Dry seeds in Europe and Central Asia

Not surprisingly, the annual global production of pulses has expanded in the last two decades, surpassing even the global demand by about 30 percent. At the same time, only a small percent of Europe’s arable land is used currently for cultivating pulses, posing a challenge to biodiversity and to the overall resilience of agricultural production systems in the region.

When it comes to the Europe and Central Asia region, peas are by far the most commonly produced pulse type, followed by broad beans and horse beans, according to FAOStat. The popularity of certain types can differ among subregions, making some less widely produced types real local staples, such as the running bean in southeastern Europe.

The consumption of pulses in the region is varied, depending on the culinary traditions and local diets. The daily pulses intake is rather low in most of the countries, except Norway, Türkiye, Kyrgyzstan, and the Republic of Moldova, where, according to the Food Systems Dashboard, the supply of pulses is over the global average.

The cultivation of pulses has multiple social and environmental benefits. ©FAO/Orlando Sierra

To meet global dietary recommendations, residents of Europe and Central Asia should more than double their daily consumption of pulses. They can get inspired from the FAO pulses cookbook for recipies for all tastes and from all over the world.

The consumption of pulses in the region can be promoted further as part of a healthy diet  as shown in several traditional cuisines across the region. For instance, when paired with cereals, such as rice, the dish offers a comprehensive plant-based protein source encompassing all essential amino acids for our body. The rice plov with lentils or chickpeas in Central Asia and the stuffed cabbage leaves using lentils, chickpeas, and bulgur in Armenia are great examples for a nutritionally harmonious pairing. Also, the practice of combining pulses with food rich in vitamin C is scientifically grounded, too. By squeezing lemon juice on the Turkish red lentil soup, one can enhance the absorption of iron from pulses.

Yet, considering the relatively high cost of legumes in the region, consumers may require a more supportive policy environment to realize this that aims at improving the availability and affordability of pulses in the region.

However, casting pulses in a more central role in the diets here could not only bring about a revival of traditional local meals, but also mark a conscious step towards more nutritious diets and sustainable food systems in Europe and Central Asia.


Read more

2. Zero hunger, 13. Climate action, 15. Life on land