The Promise of Pulse Proteins
There are no animals on Paul Kanning’s farm, but his fields have supplied burgers to the world. Kanning primarily grows lentils, spring wheat, canola and peas in Flaxville, Montana, which he describes as being “about 60 miles from the end of the world.”
In rotation with grains and oilseed crops such as wheat and canola, he has grown yellow peas for PURIS Foods, a major plant protein supplier, several times. “My yellow peas, they extruded the protein out of it and made Beyond Meat burgers with it,” he says. That piqued Kanning’s interest enough for him to try the much-hyped patty. “I put a little onion and a little cheese on it, and I tell you, my brain really couldn’t tell the difference…Your brain says, ‘This is beef in here,’ but it’s not.”
It’s pulse protein.
Pulse crops—a term that comes from “puls,” the Latin word for porridge—are low-fat, dry edible seeds (think: chickpeas, lentils and dry peas) within the larger category of legumes (think: soybeans and Mr. Peanut). Yellow peas have become a new mainstay for the plant-based meat industry as plant-based meat has broken into mainstream food culture across Canada and the US, two of the world’s leading pulse exporters.
In the US, retail sales for plant-based alternatives grew 27 percent in 2020—twice as fast as overall food sales. Plant-based meat, in particular, grew 45 percent, and three of the top 10 plant-based meat companies in the US now use pea protein to make cow-less burgers, pig-less sausages and chickenless tenders.
Similarly, Nielsen data shows that plant-based food sales grew 25 percent in Canada in 2020. In November, Protein Industries Canada, a public-private partnership, announced a $7.6-million CAD co-investment to develop plant-based, non-soy pork and Wagyu beef alternatives using Canadian crops. In parallel, the Canadian government announced an investment of more than $4.3 million CAD to support pulse and special crop farmers in meeting rising consumer demand for plant-based protein.
The “alt” category (i.e., plant-based alternatives to animal products) is one to watch for pulses, according to Jeff Rumney, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council (USADPLC) and American Pulse Association (APA). While the market for alternative proteins is still one of the smallest, “meat substitutes show the greatest potential growth,” he says.
Plant protein is inherently resource-efficient
Peas have become a staple ingredient for the plant-based meat industry, in part, because pulses are a “very, very cheap source of very, very high levels of nutrition” to borrow Kanning’s turn of phrase. To the Montana farmer, this nutrition-to-cost ratio is just one aspect of pulses’ benefits for overall food system sustainability.
Aaron Flansburg, a fifth-generation Washington farmer and an officer of the USADPLC alongside Kanning, shares this perspective. “I definitely see pulse protein [and] plant protein as part of the solution to feeding a growing population, to mitigating climate change,” he says.
Flansburg is keen to acknowledge that he eats meat and thinks “there’s room in the marketplace” for both animal and plant protein. However, he also notes that “cattle are not an efficient converter of feed to animal biomass. It takes an awful lot of ground to raise beef.”
Indeed, a recent analysis by Our World in Data calculates that a global transition to a plant-based diet would shrink our agricultural land requirement by 75 percent. And according to research published in Nature Sustainability, restoring native ecosystems on the land freed up by a plant-based shift could sequester all of the carbon dioxide in the emissions budget consistent with a 66-percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degree Celsius.
The basic land and resource efficiency of making burgers or nuggets directly from plants is a major reason why alternative products have much smaller environmental and climate footprints. And beyond simply being lower down on the food chain, pulses and legumes offer a broader suite of opportunities for food system sustainability.
Pulses benefit soil health and the bottom line
As members of the legume family, pulses fix nitrogen from the air into nitrogen that plants can use, thanks to the help of friendly bacteria that live in the plants’ roots. The upshot is that pulses require little or no manure or synthetic fertilizer. Additionally, they reduce the fertilizer needed for other crops in a farmer’s rotation system.
While nitrogen fixation is likely the most well-known benefit, Kanning adds that “it’s the other things” that make pulse crops powerhouses of conservation farming. The “other things” include: requiring very little water; improving the soil microbiome, soil structure and water retention; improving the yield and quality of the crop that follows in the rotation; helping prevent crop disease; and helping farmers reduce or eliminate fallowing and tillage.
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Kanning witnessed the transformative impact of pulses on the sustainability of his own farming community. He suspects that, without the introduction of pulse crops to his region, his corner of Montana would be producing much less due to soil degradation. “And I don’t know if the community would be here,” he says. “The community is more sustainable now because agriculture is more sustainable.”
As much as pulses can benefit the soil, they also benefit the farmers’ bottom line—a crucial factor because, as Flansburg explains, “there’s not a whole lot of room for error in a given year.”
Shifting the balance of consumer demand for pulse protein
There was even less room for error than usual in 2021, as a historic drought blanketed the western US and large parts of Canada. “Previously, when drought like that came, we would have never had the crop that we had this year,” says Kanning. The improved water retention and soil health from pulse farming helped to mitigate the damage. “It helps us get through the bad years like this year.”
Nonetheless, the drought has taken a toll on pulse crops. A November USDA report notes that the drought drove pulse yields down and prices up—and prices are projected to keep rising. The report also projects, however, that rising prices will likely incentivize growers to plant more pulses in the coming year.
When it comes to what and how much to plant, “the decision that an individual farmer makes is still more about the commodity than it is about [‘Alt’] end-use,” Rumney says. Nevertheless, the growing interest in pulse protein is capturing imaginations across the industry. “I tell you what, every event that we go to, they don’t talk about lentil soup,” says Rumney. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and alternative proteins are the hot topics. “The sparkle in all these dreamers’ eyes is in ‘Alt.’”
And yet, the demand for pulse proteins is greater in other parts of the world, especially Far East Asia and Africa. Canada is the world’s largest exporter of both pulses and dry peas. The US is the third-largest exporter of pulses. Flansburg would like to see domestic demand take on a larger share of the pulse market, in order to better insulate his farm from the volatility of international trade. “I don’t like the idea that my market opportunities are going to be constrained by whatever trade war any given administration decides to engage in that harms me at the farm level,” he says.
Flansburg witnessed the tremendous shift in chickpea demand from primarily international to primarily domestic that accompanied the rise in hummus popularity over the past decade. And he sees room for more increase in the domestic market for plant proteins and alternative meats as well—“not just due to population growth,” he says. “but due to consumers’ taste and the fact that people recognize plant protein as a responsible source of protein.”
Kanning also looks to consumer tastes to “set the market.” Farmers, he points out, do not control what people want. “People’s views are changing for a lot of reasons,” he says. “They want to be healthier. They want to help the environment. They want to help us sustain it.”
From the field to the food system, Kanning and Flansburg see pulses as a part of the larger sustainability picture. “I think pulse crops are part of the solution. They’re not the only thing, but they’re an important part,” says Flansburg. “It’s kind of a vote with your fork, I think, to eat more plant proteins.”