By Lyndal Rowlands
But as hard to believe, they also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It is estimated that some 190 million hectares of legumes discharge between five and seven million tons of nitrogen to the soil. As they are capable of fixing their own nitrogen in the soil, they do not need as many fertilizers, whether organic or synthetic, and can play an important role in reducing polluting emissions.
Also, legumes are very popular; world production increased from 64 million hectares in 1961 to almost 86 million in 2014.
Data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also indicate that when livestock are fed legumes, “their high protein content makes them contribute to increasing the rate of feed conversion, while they decrease methane emissions from ruminants, therefore greenhouse gas emissions ”.
That reveals the great concern that that agency has about the impact of climate change on food security.
Global warming has a huge impact on food production and food security. "Climate changes can cause an increase in natural disasters such as droughts, floods or hurricanes, which can affect all levels of food production," says the FAO document.
Unless sustainable measures are taken urgently, climate change will continue to exert strong pressure on agricultural ecosystems, especially in regions and on particularly vulnerable populations, warns the agency, which reports on the so-called climate-smart varieties of legumes.
In addition, the FAO notes that legumes have a vast genetic diversity, from which improved varieties can be selected for cultivation. This characteristic is particularly important because strains more resistant to climate variability can be developed for use in areas prone to floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.
Legumes and agroforestry
In addition to the above, "agroforestry systems that include legumes, such as pigeon peas, with other crops, help maintain the food security of farmers, helping them to diversify their sources of income," says FAO.
And so, “agroforestry systems better withstand extreme climatic conditions because legumes are more resistant than most crops and help nourish the soil. When these systems are used, farmers see an increase in crop productivity that spreads to subsequent crop yields. ”
In fact, it is significant that the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses and organized in April the International Conference on Pulses for Health, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture in Arid Zones in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, where the Declaration on Legumes as a Solution to Food, Nutritional Security, Sustainable Agriculture and Adaptation to Climate Change came from.
The meeting brought together scientific experts from around the world to find a way to boost the production of pulses in developing countries with measures in the field of science, research for investment in development, policies and markets.
The Moroccan Declaration recommends increasing legume production by 20 percent, compared to the current volume, by 2030, improving yield, expanding into new niches that include intensifying fallow rice fields with legumes and other seasonal possibilities in intensive cropping systems already existing.
It also recognizes that the production of pulses lagged far behind the growing demand in developing countries, despite the many benefits “for the population and the environment, leaving healthier soils, lower carbon footprint and water, greater security. nutrition in households and additional income for farmers ”.
But what are legumes?
FAO created a list of hard facts: “Legumes are a type of legume that is harvested only to obtain the dried seed. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of legumes ”.
“Legumes do not include crops that are harvested green (eg green peas, green beans), as these are classified as vegetables. Crops used mainly for the extraction of oils (such as soybeans and peanuts) and legumes that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (clover seeds and alfalfa) are also excluded, ”the document details.
“You are probably already eating more legumes than you are aware of! Among the most popular are all varieties of dried beans, including kidney beans, Lima beans, kidney beans, and lima beans. Chickpeas, cowpeas, mask beans and pigeon peas are also legumes, as are all varieties of lentils ”, he adds.
"The gastronomy of the whole world uses legumes, from the hummus in the Mediterranean (made from chickpeas), to a traditional full English breakfast (with white beans) or the dal of India (with peas or lentils)", adds FAO .
Why are legumes so important?
"Legumes are full of nutrients and have a high protein content, making them an ideal source of protein, particularly in regions where meat and dairy are not physically or economically accessible," emphasizes FAO.
“Legumes are low in fat and rich in soluble fiber, capable of lowering cholesterol and helping control blood sugar. Because of these qualities, they are recommended by healthcare organizations to deal with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions. They have also been shown to help fight obesity ”, he says.
“Legumes are an important crop for farmers, because they can sell them and also consume them at the family level. Having the option of eating and selling the legumes they produce helps farmers to maintain food security in their homes and generates economic stability, ”the document emphasizes.
“In addition, the nitrogen-fixing properties of legumes improve soil fertility, which increases the productivity of farmland. By using legumes for intercropping and cover crops, farmers can also promote agricultural and soil biodiversity, keeping pests and harmful diseases at bay, ”he adds.
Legumes even help mitigate climate change because they reduce dependence on synthetic fertilizers, used to provide nitrogen to the soil.
During the manufacture and application of these fertilizers, polluting gases are released and their excessive use can be harmful to the environment.
However, "legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil naturally and in some cases release phosphorus, significantly reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers", explains FAO.
Translated by Verónica Firme