Pulses in Place: Planted from Policy

UBC Forestry Student Standing in Front of Pulses Table

This blogpost was written by Dr. Tara Moreau and Tamara Litke, Sustainability and Community Programs, UBC Botanical Garden in Vancouver BC Canada

It is easy to see how we can forget that food comes from plants. Sterile aisles in grocery stores bear no resemblance to the soil from which seeds are sown and grown. In a world of food insecurity, increasing diet-related disease and a changing climate, our communities need to catalyze connections between what we consume and how it is produced. Turns out that botanical gardens are ideal places to host these discussions.

Connecting global and local discussions can be difficult at times. However, every year the United Nations (UN) observes an International Year to promote awareness and actions on specific issues. UBC Botanical Garden, in Vancouver Canada, aims to link its’ Sustainability and Community Program mandate to these themes:

  • The International Year of Soils 2015
  • The International Year of Pulses 2016
  • The Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development 2017

What are pulses? 

  • Edible dried seeds of beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas and favas
  • Cotyledons of leguminous crops
  • Important agricultural crop of plants in the Fabaceae family 

Why pulses?

Pulses are perplexing, pretty and planet-saving sources of plant-based protein (*say that 5 times fast).

Perplexing because most plants in this family obtain their own nitrogen (an essential plant nutrient) through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria (Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium).

Pretty because…have you seen all their colours? Lentils alone range in colour from yellow to red-orange, to green, brown and black. There is even pulse jewelry (check out the FAO pulse blog My Pulses Necklaces).

Food Garden, UBC Botanical Garden

Planet-saving because pulses are nutritional powerhouses, providing important plant-based proteins shown to lower the risk of disease. They offer fiber, vitamins and minerals in a storable, affordable form and grow easily in semi-arid climates. By acquiring their own nitrogen they require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, saving money and energy and reducing greenhouse gases. The water footprint per gram of protein is significantly less for pulse production as compared to animal-based production (Water Footprint 2016). Pulses are vital for multiple cropping systems (intercropping, crop rotation and agroforestry), reducing the risk of soil depletion and erosion. They also have high rates of soil carbon accumulation, thereby sequestering carbon from the atmosphere (climate change mitigation).

Botanical gardens are museums of living plants. They host a diversity of visitors and offer unique places to explore biodiversity, human cultures and sustainability. The American Public Garden Association (APGA) estimates that its member gardens (botanical gardens and public gardens) attract over 100 million visitors per year (APGA 2015). While botanical gardens focus on scientifically significant plant collections, and public gardens curate flora chosen for beauty or local significance, increasingly, the environmental reality is shifting the mandate of both to serve conservation and ecological purposes. In 2016, the APGA established a Food and Agriculture Professional Section, intended to support the participation and contribution of gardens in food systems and agriculture discussions.

In our long-established food garden at UBC Botanical Garden, the year 2016 started with horticultural staff working with a local seed company to select plants suitable for Vancouver’s growing conditions: more than 20 different types of pulses were planted. For many of our staff, volunteers and visitors, it was a revelation to see a chickpea plant for the first time or to realize that the pods of the soup pea have to be so dry to harvest that they are easily mistaken for weeds (yes, this has happened).

UBC Horticulturalist talking with students in the Horticulture Training Program

Seeing pulses grow, enabled our education team, students and visitors to explore connections between food consumption and production. We emphasized pulses as an important contributor to food security and nutrition and discussed them in the context of climate change, biodiversity conservation and health. Beside the living plant growing in the ground, we displayed familiar food from local stores (e.g. dried pulses and pulses in cans), making the connection between what we eat and the way it is grown locally and globally.

Highlights of UBC Botanical Gardens pulse programming include:

  • growing and harvesting 20 different pulse plants in our demonstration food garden;
  • teaching UBC undergraduate and horticulture students about growing, harvesting and cooking pulses in Vancouver;
  • integrating pulses into food garden designs such as http://www.growgreenguide.ca/;
  • creating fun pulse education stations for community outreach events; and
  • hosting tours in our food garden highlighting the UN International Year of Pulses.

We enjoyed a year of many pulse discoveries. With gratitude we thank FAO as the host for the 2016 UN Year of Pulses. We found the FAO resources very practical and easy to disseminate to different audiences. As the year draws to a close, snow currently covers the soil in our food garden. Our year of exploring pulse production and consumption is seemingly coming to an end, but the role of pulses in our garden is just beginning.


References Cited:

The views expressed here belong to the speaker and do not necessarily represent FAO’s views, positions, strategies or opinions.


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