Legumes, the likes of peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas, are one of the most nutrient-rich crops on the market – they are abundant in protein, fibre, iron and potassium – and they are a healthier alternative to cereals and meat.
The appetite for them is starting to grow: more than 40% of Brits are looking to reduce the amount of meat in their diet and 14% of the population consider themselves “flexitarians” (following a flexible vegetarian diet.)
While traditional European crops such as oats, barley, wheat and rapeseed require synthetic fertilisers to obtain nitrogen – a critical nutrient for growth – leguminous plants produce their own nitrogen from the air. They also leave nitrogen behind in the soil, ready to be used by future crops.
Dr David Styles, a lecturer in environmental engineering at the University of Limerick, explains, “Synthetic fertiliser nitrogen dominates the carbon footprint for the cultivation of crops. If we can reduce that by increasing legume production, we’re automatically going to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But these crops aren’t so prevalent in Europe,” he added. “They only cover about 1% of European outer land at the moment. Whereas in other countries, like Canada, it’s more than 20%.” Europe obtains most of its protein-rich crops by importing soya beans from South America – a system that drives deforestation.
Introducing legumes to traditional crop rotations in Scotland would reduce the use of synthetic fertilisers by up to 50%.