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Lentil and pea Farmer Tim Wiens, displays some green lentils on his farm in Herschel, SK, April 10th, 2015. (Liam Richards For The Globe and Mail)
Lentil and pea Farmer Tim Wiens, displays some green lentils on his farm in Herschel, SK, April 10th, 2015. (Liam Richards For The Globe and Mail)

Charlebois and Martin

Could Canada have the pulse of a new era for food? Add to ...

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute. Ralph Martin is a professor and Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph.

A new year is soon upon us and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared that 2016 will be the International Year of Pulses.

The idea is to position pulses as a primary source of protein and other essential nutrients. Given the science behind pulses, and the challenges animal-protein production faces, it is appropriate that the FAO is showcasing the virtues of such a fascinating crop.

Pulses mean little to many people, but we all know about dried peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas.

All of these products are common varieties of pulses. Pulses are known to have high protein and fibre content, and are low in fat. Sounds like the perfect food, doesn’t it? Indeed, pulses are often referred to as a “super food.”

As legumes, pulses are nitrogen-fixing crops. In other words, they do not require nitrogen fertilizers. They fix their own nitrogen from the air. From an environmental sustainability standpoint, this is gold. Up to one-third of the current agricultural energy budget accounts for nitrogen fertilizer. The manufacturing of nitrogen fertilizer requires high temperatures and pressures, which uses plenty of energy. Furthermore, nitrogen fertilizer can contribute to nitrous oxide emissions, one of the worst greenhouse gases. It also contributes to nitrate leaching into the water table, which is related to blue baby syndrome.

From a business perspective, pulses have done wonders for Canada’s agricultural economy in recent years.

Exports are now valued at over $3-billion and pulses are now Canada’s fifth-largest crop, with India, China and Turkey our largest buyers. But there is real potential to do more. New grain handlers offer a greater access to market opportunities for farmers who want to grow pulses.

However, Canada doesn’t have a monopoly on pulses. They are grown in all regions of the world and for many reasons.

For one, many pulses require little water, which is critical for many areas where water scarcity is a recurring issue.

Also, for low-input farmers, pulses provide a strong case for higher yields without having to use nitrogen fertilizer. Pulse production is financially manageable for many farmers, including those in emerging economies.

It’s only a matter of time before other economies embrace pulses and begin to compete against Canada.

What’s ironic is that we export most of our pulse production. As Canadians, we tend to be limited in our knowledge of how to prepare and cook pulses. Awareness and education are just what we need in the year ahead. Certainly, while emerging markets benefit from the protein intake, the Western diet needs fibre in addition to protein. Pulses can serve many markets, for many different reasons.

Most Canadians still consider meat as their primary source of protein. Livestock production obviously has a purpose and will continue to support culinary traditions in the Western world. Beef, pork, chicken and other specialty products will continue to cater to specific markets looking for an acquired and unique taste. That’s not going to change any time soon.

However, the growing demand for protein will force all markets to pay more for animal protein if the stocks are available.

As more producers exit the industry or deal with depleted stocks, Canadians are already beginning to witness the true cost of livestock production, as prices have increased by 25 to 30 per cent over the past two years.

Given that imminent price drops are highly unlikely, people will begin to look for alternatives.

In fact, according to a recent study, more than 36 per cent of Canadians are now looking beyond the meat counter without letting go of their favourite steaks. Many are either trading down or buying fewer selected cuts. In the past year, roughly 10 per cent of Canadians have thought of dropping beef consumption altogether as a result of recent price increases.

Even more troublesome for livestock proponents is that recent price hikes appear to have awakened certain concerns consumers may have about livestock products. More than ever, sustainability, animal welfare and health are on consumers’ radar.

The FAO’s decision to focus its attention on pulses is the right one. Pulses are under-researched, and in the developing word, small-scale farmers cultivating pulse crops are challenged by diseases, pests and weeds. Without genetic improvement and appropriate agronomic practices for pulses, food insecurity in many regions will persist. Time is running out to adjust our global agri-food system to sustain sufficient production that matches healthy adequate consumption.

With the world’s population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 and with climate change creating more uncertainty, Canada’s role can be nothing short of influential as we collaborate with others in emerging markets to develop know-how and resources. The declaration of 2016 as the Year of Pulses is both timely and rational for the globe, and also for Canada. Pulses could be the foundation of a new food era.

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