Conflicts and consensus: the role of legumes in food futures

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The humble legume, the mainstay of vegetarian diets for decades, seems to be the current answer to a lot of complex problems around food system sustainability, but scratch beneath the surface and the situation becomes a little more complicated. 

From reducing human meat consumption to decreasing the environmental footprint of livestock systems, legumes are seen as a cure all for challenges we face in the UK and around the world. My colleagues and I have documented the conflicting and contradictory food futures making use of legumes’ agronomic, food processing and nutritional qualities in a new paper published in Global Environmental Change. We look at three options, upon which people disagree: producing better meat or eating less of it; unprocessed vs processed foods; agroecology or sustainable intensification.

The plant family covers a number of familiar foodstuffs – the peas, beans, and lentils  — and also includes several plants common across European agricultural management, such as clover and lucerne for grazing livestock animals, and vetches and trefoil for cover crops in rotations.

Producing ‘better’ meat, eating differently, scaling up

With regards to the tricky issue of livestock, through the use of homegrown feed products like clovers, beans or even soya, European animal agriculture farmers can remove themselves from problematic feed supply chains. At the same time they lessen the impact on biodiversity, water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Elsewhere legumes are championed as the central component in diets predicated and reduced- or no-meat diets, the foodstuffs needed to make plant-based diets possible.

Where discussions focus on processed vs unprocessed foods, some celebrate legumes for their historical role in our diets and farm systems, and thus form part of a politically engaged ‘alternative food network’ model of direct to market distribution and traditional revivalism. For others, they are exciting because of their malleability in food processing contexts – a flavourless and nutritious additive amenable to the growing market for convenience products marketed at health-conscious, gluten-free, dairy-free and meat-free consumers. 

This tension also leads to food-system scale concerns: are legumes best suited to an agroecological model of small-scale farms, short supply chains and land use diversification, or a model of sustainable growth predicated on the logics of scale, genetic breeding, intensification and productivity? 

Benefits regardless of approach

Despite their role in these contradictory and conflicting food futures, their benefits should not be overlooked. Across the three tensions: less vs better meat; unprocessed vs processed foods; agroecology or sustainable intensification, there are a number of points of consensus that might serve as a departure point for future discussions about their application in sustainable food systems. 

Legumes are high in protein and nutritious; in the context of European agricultural management, they are familiar, traditional and uncontroversial; and they help fix nitrogen from the air and into the soil, reducing the need for artificial fertilisation. As the food system begins to progress towards a plant-based model of farming and eating, these three points can help inform the policy makers, funding bodies, industry organisations, farmers and consumers who might otherwise be disorientated by the food futures legumes are being used to justify.