How do you combat the climate crisis, beat global malnutrition and create a shift in farming in one single meal? Robin Eveleigh reports on the tiny but mighty solution – and the vital small policy change – that could trigger a ‘cascade of decarbonisation'
They’re the butt of endless jokes and a toilet humour staple, but now it seems the humble bean is having a moment. Living up to its superfood reputation, new research suggests that legumes might just help save the world.
The Breakthrough Effect, a study by academics at the University of Exeter, found that swapping burgers for beans and other plant-based foods on public sector menus – from prisons to schools and hospitals – could act as one of three ‘super-leverage’ tipping points capable of triggering a cascade of decarbonisation.
No wonder the UN has started a campaign to “fix the future with beans”, called Beans is How, which aims to double global bean consumption by 2028.
Globally, the stakes are high. With meat accounting for 60 per cent of the planet-heating gases belched out by food production, shifting diets to the legume family of protein-rich beans, pulses, peas and lentils has the potential to not only deliver massive CO2 savings, but also slash deforestation and free up land used for growing livestock feed.
Throw in legumes’ natural capacity for regenerating soil health through fixing nitrogen and their wallet-friendly price of around £1.60 a kilo – half the cost of your average intensively reared chicken – and you have one giant opportunity at the end of the beanstalk. And that’s before we even mention their status as one of our most nutritious foods, with studies showing that eating legumes regulates blood sugar, lowers cholesterol, boosts heart health and even reduces cancer risk.
Supercharging global bean intake through public procurement, rather than just at the individual level, is a vision already taking shape in Denmark. Government guidelines implemented in 2021 recommending a daily legume intake of 100g have been embraced by cooks and caterers in schools, hospitals, nursing homes and municipal office canteens.
All the farmers we talk to really want to change, and to be part of that change process
“No one says specifically: ‘you have to buy pulses’, but you have the recommendation that we eat them, and also a push for less CO2-heavy diets in public canteens,” says Ebbe Andersen, chief plant-based food consultant with Denmark’s Agriculture and Food Council. “Those things combined make it natural that beans and pulses play a bigger role.”
Andersen says that supermarket buying trends suggest the example set by public procurement is trickling down to consumer level, but cautions that Danes are still way off hitting the 100g target, at just under 10g. By comparison, in the world’s largest-consuming regions – Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi – people eat almost their body weight in beans annually, approximately 50-60kg.
Pulse power is also slowly building in the Netherlands, where a coalition of academics, government departments and food industry representatives are bidding to double bean and pulse consumption by 2030. Researchers from Wageningen University spoke to caterers in schools, universities, prisons and hospitals where bean-based dishes are already hitting menus.
“We heard a lot from caterers who were afraid to experiment because they were worried about making a financial loss, but those who did make changes realised they didn’t have to be so afraid,” explains consumer scientist Muriel Verain.
One barrier to progress is a European farming industry hooked on traditional cereal crops, meat and dairy. Developing clearer routes to market for legumes gives farmers the confidence to play their part in a protein transition, according to food activist Josiah Meldrum.
Meldrum co-founded Hodmedod’s, a wholefood retailer specialising in British-grown produce, to catalyse a bean renaissance. That was 12 years ago. It now works with farmers looking to step off the industrial farming treadmill, helping them market home-grown flamingo peas, smoked quinoa, coral lentils and more.
“We want to put an opportunity in front of them which allows them to do their job differently,” he says. “All the farmers we talk to really want to change, and to be part of that change process.”
In the UK, beans have been grown since the Iron Age and were once a dietary staple, until industrialisation brought processed foods, intensively reared meat and a raft of damaging ecological impacts.
“I think it’s crept up on a lot of farmers that this has been a bit of a disaster,” says Meldrum. “The good news is they will respond just as favourably, if not more so, if policy goes in the other direction. They need far less incentive to do positive things than to do negative things.
Meldrum believes that our industrialised farm model could eventually be phased out by cutting demand for pork and poultry, reducing the need for both imported soy-based feed and homegrown feed crops. Government farming subsidies could incentivise the use of freed-up land for growing legumes.
He’d like to see bean and pulse growers gain a foothold in the government’s nascent ‘dynamic procurement’ system, a new model that aims to open the doors of public sector purchasing to smaller businesses and organisations. “It’s a very positive thing actually,” he says. “And if it works, then it could be transformative.”
Meldrum says that UK demand for beans and pulses is already “huge” – and growing. And with average daily meat consumption falling by as much as 17 per cent in the UK in the decade to 2019, according to analysis published in the Lancet, our replacement protein fix has to come from somewhere.
It’s about showing that there are other ways of eating
There is even now the prospect of British-grown baked beans. In recent weeks, the first commercial crop of homegrown haricot beans has been harvested at a farm in Lincolnshire, after undergoing 12 years of development at the University of Warwick. Currently, the UK’s leading brand of baked beans alone ships 50,000 tonnes of North American beans per year. Growing these beans in the UK will significantly reduce food miles and contribute towards achieving food sector climate goals, say those behind the project.
And green (bean) shoots of hope are also emerging in canteens across the country. Councils are exercising their powers to take decisions locally, in the absence of leadership from Westminster. Three UK local authorities – Norwich, Edinburgh and Haywards Heath – have already signed up to the global Plant-Based Treaty initiative, pledging to put vegan meals in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, prisons and government buildings. Meanwhile in Leicestershire, the BeanMeals project led by the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, is promoting beans and pulses on the menus at six schools as part of a broader study in how to increase supply and demand of home-grown beans across the UK.
Georgina Webber, deputy headteacher at Greenside primary in Shepherd’s Bush, London, has already made the leap. On their fully vegetarian school dinner menu, beans and pulses take centre stage.
“It’s about showing that there are other ways of eating, and it’s so much easier to teach about healthy and nutritious meals when you’re all eating these delicious things together,” she says. “We use them every day.” Perhaps the fairytale is true after all – beans really are magic.
Pulse power: Five startups reinventing the bean
A chance, over-the-hedgerow chat with neighbour Mike Stringer led farmer Adam Palmer to set up The Honest Bean Co with his sister four years ago. The pair were searching for a sustainable, Britishproduced alternative to chickpeas to make hummus. Stringer, something of a fava bean farming legend, had the answer growing in his field next door. The Honest Bean Co was born, and the brother-and-sister team now grow their own fava beans at sites across the UK, roasting them to crunchy perfection and spicing them liberally to create a munchable snack falling somewhere between a potato crisp and a nut. “Fava beans are full of protein and fibre, grow perfectly in the British climate and they’re great for soil health too,” says Palmer.
Image: Honest Bean Co
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, in Hodmedod’s case. Hodmedod is an old East Anglian word that can refer to a hedgehog, a snail, a curl of hair or even an ammonite. Co-founder Josiah Meldrum reckons this forgotten word works equally well for beans, particularly the heritage fava beans and black badger peas he is eager to revive. The company was born in 2012 out of Meldrum’s Great British Beans project, which aimed to stimulate a renaissance of home-grown pulses by distributing a tonne of British favas. Hodmedod’s now sell pulses, grains, seeds and flour, all grown on British farms. And their site is a treasure trove of lip-smacking recipes. Moorish mushy peas with harissa? We’re in.
Image: David Charbit/Hodmedod’s
Jens Hannibal and Michael Tingsager brought their bean know-how to London from their native Denmark, where they set up Pulse Kitchen. Besides running a busy kitchen consultancy, the duo sells their beanpowered, planet-friendly ready meals direct from their website. Think Mexican non-carne, chickpea tikka masala and lentil and mushroom bolognese, boosted with natural sources of umami and their in-house spice blends, devised over years of kitchen tinkering. “The idea is, you don’t need to change your eating habits,” says Hannibal. “These are just plant-based versions of meals you already love.”
Image: Pulse Kitchen
Another player in the oven-ready space, Cool Beans lives up to its moniker by making banging, beanpacked burritos for the home freezer. Founder Tyler Mayoras set up the Chicago-based outfit after turning vegan six years ago and experiencing constant disappointment as he searched the freezer aisles for a healthy, ready meal fix. “I did a lot of weekend meal prepping and I would freeze the extra portions into wraps that I could take to work, and thus the idea for Cool Beans was born,” he says. “We centred around beans and legumes because they are so great for both people and the planet.
Image: Cool Beans
Beans? Bold? Really? Founder Amelia Christie-Miller certainly thinks so. “We’re trying to show people that not all beans are equal,” she says. Christie-Miller has scoured Europe to source prime butterbeans, chickpeas and alubia blancas, which she sells in glass jars. “All the varieties we choose are grown for taste,” she says. “And we cook them slowly to preserve their amazing flavours.” Her Bold Bean Co cookbook recently hit bookshops and is packed with creative recipe ideas: from charred courgettes, black beans and romesco sauce, to crispy chickpeas, strawberries and sumac yoghurt.
Image: Milly Fletcher
Main image: Kei Uesugi
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