PULSES

With our society’s overflowing abundance of food, I haven’t given food security much thought. But my complacency has been rattled by the steadily increasing cost of food, up 4.1% in 2015 and expected to rise another 4% in 2016 (Food Institute, University of Guelph). Then, as if by providence, I stumbled upon an article in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic – The New Food Revolution.

Until I read this piece, I had no idea of our predicament. “Our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet,” warns author Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, environmental scientist, and expert on food security.

First, the global agricultural system produces up to one-third of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector. The way we grow and produce our food drives global climate change.

farm_emissions_sources

Farming emissions come from a variety of sources that differ depending on the type of farm. Image credit: IPCC

Second, without a major change in what we eat, we will need to double the production of food crops by 2050 for both human and livestock consumption. With the spread of affluence, particularly in China and India, a growing portion of food crops will go to the production of meat, dairy and eggs.

Third, agriculture is the thirstiest user of our dwindling water supplies.

 

Fourth, farming is a major driver of wildlife extinction through the pollution and destruction of ecosystems. Indonesia’s tropical forests, home to orangutans and some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet are being burned down for plantation development.

Fifth, a billion people currently lack adequate access to food, and that number will certainly increase, contributing to worldwide instability (think of Syria, for instance).

Foley and his team of scientists set out to answer this question: “How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture?”

They identified five steps:

Step One: Freeze agriculture’s footprint

We already use an area the size of South America to grow crops, and an area the size of Africa to raise livestock.

Step Two: Grow more on farms we’ve got

Yields on less productive farmlands, especially in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, can be boosted several times over with precision farming techniques and organic farming approaches.

Step Three: Use resources more efficiently

Tailor the application of fertilizers and pesticides to exact soil conditions. Subsurface drip irrigation, cover crops, mulches and compost conserve water and build up nutrients.

Step Four: Shift diets

We need to eat less grain-fed meat, particularly beef. For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef.

Step Five: Reduce waste

An estimated 25% of the world’s food calories and up to 50% of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. In rich countries like Canada, most of that waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets.

One of the best things we can do for our health, our budgets, and for the planet is to add pulses to our diet. Never heard of them? Neither had I, until the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. They are legume crops harvested solely for the dry seed, such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

IYP 2016

Pulses are very high in protein and fibre, low in fat, and have high levels of minerals such as iron, zinc, and phosphorous as well as folate and other B-vitamins. They are nitrogen-fixing crops that improve soil fertility (unlike other crops that require nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas). And, they require far less water than other protein sources (i.e. 50 litres of water per kilogram versus 13,000 litres of water per kilogram of beef).

Pulses are Canada’s fifth-largest crop, but most of what we grow gets exported. By adding pulses to our diet, we also support an important Canadian industry.

Go to http://www.pulsecanada.com/ for recipe ideas. For me, it’s spicy lentil tacos tonight!

This article was first published in the February/March 2016 issue of North Simcoe Life in my Building a Better World column.