• Executive director of advocacy group SDG2 Advocacy Hub, Paul Newnham.
    Executive director of advocacy group SDG2 Advocacy Hub, Paul Newnham.
  • Executive director of advocacy group SDG2 Advocacy Hub, Paul Newnham, received the Green Pea Sustainability Award at Pulses 2023.
    Executive director of advocacy group SDG2 Advocacy Hub, Paul Newnham, received the Green Pea Sustainability Award at Pulses 2023.
  • This week Australia has hosted Pulses23, the global pulse convention. The rise of plant-based meats has gone someway to raise awareness, but their role could be much greater.
    This week Australia has hosted Pulses23, the global pulse convention. The rise of plant-based meats has gone someway to raise awareness, but their role could be much greater.
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Australia was a relative latecomer to the humble bean. While trials of haricot varieties took place in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first fully domesticated sweet lupin was developed in Western Australia. The lentil industry – now the bedrock of vegetarian cuisine across our capitals – is just 35 years old.

Yet, faced with today’s high inflation, the rising cost of living, and an economic downturn, the country may find pulses an unlikely solution to the polycrisis.

Executive director of advocacy group SDG2 Advocacy Hub, Paul Newnham, received the Green Pea Sustainability Award at Pulses 2023.
Executive director of advocacy group SDG2 Advocacy Hub, Paul Newnham, received the Green Pea Sustainability Award at Pulses 2023.

This month’s global convention, Pulses 23, hosted in Sydney, is a reminder of the many benefits and opportunities that legumes, which include beans and other pulses, offer for healthy and affordable diets, as well as trade and export, climate action, and international development.

At the same time, Beans is How, a campaign to double the global consumption of beans and other pulses by 2028 is gaining momentum.

And with growing government investment and support from chefs and retailers, Australians could unlock the full potential of pulse power.

Pulses are among the most cost-effective sources of high-value nutrients, containing key protein, B-vitamins, iron, and zinc. With food inflation running high at eight per cent, and the price of animal-source foods such as dairy increasing by almost 15 per cent, pulses play a critical role in maintaining diverse, healthy, and nutritious diets.

Public health agencies and departments can encourage more people to incorporate pulses into their diets by updating national dietary guidelines to emphasise the benefits and diversity of beans, lentils, and peas, for delicious, accessible, and affordable meals.

A third of Australians are already reducing the amount of meat they eat to keep costs down. Pulses are rich sources of protein; lupins, for example, contain up to 40 per cent while fava beans contain 25 per cent. A high protein content, combined with rich sources of fibre, vitamins, and minerals, means consumers need not compromise on nutritional value by opting for pulses as a more affordable alternative.

This week Australia has hosted Pulses23, the global pulse convention. The rise of plant-based meats has gone someway to raise awareness, but their role could be much greater.

This is even more important in some of Australia’s major pulses export markets, such as India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where as many as half of children under five lack sufficient levels of iron and zinc. Pulses are among the most affordable ways to address such micronutrient deficiencies in low-income countries.

Pulses also help to reduce the environmental impact of food systems by emitting far less carbon than many other crops and livestock. For every 100g of protein, legumes generate 35 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to beef, and almost seven times fewer emissions than vegetables.

Beyond low levels of greenhouse gas emissions, pulses also have a unique ability among plants to make use of the nitrogen available in the soil and air to produce their own nutrients, reducing the need for fertiliser. This biological process also increases the amount of carbon stored in soils.

With an estimated two thirds of Australian land considered degraded, farmers should be incentivised to grow pulses together with other crops to improve soil health without needing to use nitrogen fertiliser. Both inter-cropping and using pulses as cover crops encourage better soil health, in turn unlocking the potential for greater productivity to meet both rising domestic and export demand.

Pulse Australia reports record production of more than 2.5 million tonnes of pulse grain in 2005-2006 but with fully optimised conditions, the country could be producing an estimated 4.2 million tonnes, worth more than $2 billion. This would contribute to the Australian agri-food sector aiming to become a $100 billion industry by 2030.

The rapid expansion of the plant protein industry will also create new markets for pulses producers and provide consumers with more convenient and affordable food options. Such growth in both demand and production would in turn inspire more ongoing investment into crop research and development to breed even more nutrient-dense and climate-friendly varieties of beans, peas, and lentils, bringing benefits both at home and abroad.

In developing countries, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is already working with partners to adapt legumes to new disease challenges, and to suit different local conditions and markets around the world to help meet rising demand for nutritious food. But as the impacts of climate change accelerate and affect both the quantity and quality of food crops, agricultural research will need additional and continued funding to keep pace.

Channelling more investment and resources into the improvement, production and consumption of pulses is becoming increasingly compelling as the global challenges of food insecurity, climate change and inflation converge.

Pulses are as diverse as Australia itself, consumed in so many ways by cultures around the world. When it comes to delivering nutritious, accessible, and affordable diets for as many people as possible, beans may well turn out to be magic - so make pulses a part of your next meal and help spread the word.

Paul Newnham is the executive director of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, which campaigns to achieve the UN's goal of ending hunger by 2030. Paul received the Green Pea Sustainability Award at the event.

 

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