Beans Could Be the Low-Tech Solution to Food’s Biggest Problems

As the world gets hotter and drier, pulses may be key to feeding us.
Scarlet runner bean plants growing in allotment (left); scarlet runner beans (inset). (Photos: Liz Whitaker/Getty Images; Ken Lucas/Getty Images)
May 29, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The heirloom cornfield beans are just starting to break through the mulch at the base of the clusters of corn in the “three sisters” plot I have going in my Los Angeles garden. It’s a cropping system about as old as growing corn, which was domesticated in present-day Mexico some 10,000 years ago: Vining, nitrogen-fixing beans are trained up the stalks of the nutrient-hungry grain while sprawling squash vines grown in between rows provide a cool, leafy cover that traps and holds moisture in the soil, reducing the amount of water each crop requires.

Elsewhere in the garden are a few bright-red flecks running along a vine, the early flowers of scarlet runner beans—a North American native—that are more for the hummingbirds than for my family. In another bed, mounding tangles of bush-style tepary beans, domesticated thousands of years ago by tribes living in the arid Southwest, sprout and grow with little water. And as the fava beans fade with spring’s rising heat, the Cherokee greasy beans planted a row of kale away are twisting up wooden stakes, with some short, smooth pods appearing toward the ground.

Pulses—which include beans, peas, lentils, and other legumes—were among the first domesticated crops, and many of the older varieties, such as those in my garden, are hearty enough to withstand the high temperatures and dry weather of a California summer without daily irrigation. While that gives me a bit of gardener’s pride, healthier soil, and maybe a small haul of green beans, those attributes are vital to people around the world who rely on pulses as a major source of protein. As food-tech innovators turn to pulses in an effort to disrupt mayonnaise or create a veggie burger that more accurately mimics the all-American all-beef hamburger patty, these crops help people who have little choice but to eschew beef maintain a relatively healthy diet.

Just as these bean varieties, like the three sisters planting system, are a living part of an ancient history, they could be part of a more sustainable future too. Thanks to their high levels of protein, fiber, and other nutrients; low requirements for water and other agricultural inputs; long shelf life; and cultural and culinary relevance around the globe, pulses have been deemed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “an uncompromising enemy of hunger and malnutrition worldwide” and “a genuine superfood for the future” in a newly published report.

Chickpeas are having a moment on the restaurant scene right now, and you might have a favorite lentil soup or baked-bean recipe to trot out every once in a while. But generally speaking, pulses are not at the heart of the American diet; on the whole, we prefer our protein in meat form. That may be part of the reason why you see efforts like a “bleeding” veggie burger or a test-tube-grown beef patty being developed in Western countries that have the economic luxury of cheap meat—and the deep-seated cultural attachment to consuming it. Meanwhile, places such as Myanmar, Ethiopia, and Nigeria—by no means global agricultural powerhouses—rank among the top pulse-producing countries. According to the FAO report, 100 million farmers who cultivate beans, cowpeas, and chickpeas on arid lands grow 90 percent of the world’s pulse crop.

The report, which is compiled more as a consumer-facing book—complete with recipes—makes it clear that while certain pulses are a food of last resort in certain parts of the world where little else can be grown, they should and can be exalted in the cuisines of countries rich and poor alike. Eating more pulses doesn’t mean not eating meat; from the South’s Hoppin’ John to France’s cassoulet to Brazil’s feijoada, many of the world’s famous bean-based dishes balance pulses, grains (usually rice), and vegetables with varying amounts of meat. These dishes are not vegetarian, but they also aren’t the kind of meat-and-potatoes cooking that centers on an eight-ounce piece of animal protein, with everything else playing backup.

But in the U.S., with its lack of a national-identity-defining cuisine and a love for disruptive technology, the elegant, low-tech solution to the nutrition and environmental problems of food production are less seductive. Consider the profit question alone: Total cash receipts for livestock farms in the U.S. are upwards of $115 billion, while the entire vegetable and pulse sector (which the USDA’s Economic Research Service lumps together) is worth just $17.4 billion. With livestock's high-value, high-environmental-impact, and massive land-use requirements, the stakes and potential payoff make the meat industry a far more compelling target for an entrepreneur. While organizations like the FAO are doing what they can to highlight the seemingly magic bean, you only have to consider the title for the organization’s current yearlong campaign to see what an uphill battle that is going to be: “The Year of Pulses” does not have the ring of a runaway marketing success.

Yet, in an increasingly hot, dry, and populous world, the imperative for agriculture to both produce more and reduce emissions may require more beans and fewer next-generation burgers, disruptive as they may be.