Farmer Reveals the Surprising Potential of Pulses: Healthy, Low-Cost Protein for All

February 10, 2016 Updated: February 22, 2016

Tim McGreevy of Pickleflat Farm eats flash-frozen chickpeas with his morning smoothie. He marvels with excitement after learning that leftover bean cooking water can be used to make chocolate mousse. He spends his days either tending his crops and small herd of Angus grass-fed cows, or advocating for his favorite subject—or both.

McGreevy grows dry peas, chickpeas, and lentils, in rotation with wheat and barley, on 60 acres of richly fertile rolling hills located just off McGreevy Road, in the heart of eastern Washington’s Palouse Country pulse-growing region.

Pulses are the dried beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas that historically have only made their presence known for most of us in hearty soups and stews. But times are changing for the inconspicuous pulses, as right now they are the subject of a massive global marketing push to prove their potential. 

“I am really into these products,” said McGreevy, who has been a spokesperson for pulse crops for 22 years, as CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, and as head of the newly formed American Pulse Association, during a recent telephone interview.

McGreevy says he counts himself lucky to be working with pulses. “I am off to save the world,” he tells his wife each morning when he leaves for work.

The farmers told the U.N. that pulses could be the key to the world’s food security.

Pulses are already the main protein source for much of the developing world. They are usually the least costly vegetable protein and fiber source on the market. A serving of pulses costs about 10 cents, while beef costs $1.49, pork costs 73 cents, and chicken costs 63 cents, according to U.S. government data compiled by the American Pulse Association.

When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Zero Hunger Challenge in 2012, it made sense to the farmers McGreevy represents, and their global partners in other pulse-growing regions around the world, to approach the U.N. with their solution. 

The farmers told the U.N. that pulses could be the key to the world’s food security—that they could solve the problem of the 800 million people who go to bed hungry each night. Pulses, they said, are also a sustainable food source for our growing population.

The U.N. agreed with the farmers and declared 2016 Year of the Pulses, says McGreevy. The resolution, adopted by the General Assembly, recognized that pulses are a critical part of the food basket and affirmed “the need to heighten public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses and to further sustainable agriculture.”

All Rounders

Pulses yield well, are relatively easy to grow, and require minimal inputs compared to other crops, making pulses a cost-effective choice for farmers.

Many pulse crops do not require any irrigation at all. In the U.S. Northern Plain pulse-growing regions of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, McGreevy says most farmers are farming dry land. Rainfall feeds the pulse crops, and then stays in the soil for the next crop on the fields, which is typically hard wheat or barley.

Harvesting lentils on Tim McGreevy's farm in Washington state. (Courtesy of Tim McGreevy)
Harvesting lentils on Tim McGreevy’s farm in Washington state. (Courtesy of Tim McGreevy)

Pulse crops also fix nitrogen into the soil, which means not only do they not require added nitrogen fertilizers, they also leave nitrogen in the soil for the next crop.

Growing pulses in rotation, rather than leaving fields fallow as many farmers still do, can increase the yield of existing cropland, while improving soil quality. Healthy soils then reduce the instances of pests, disease, and weeds, according to USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council literature.

Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas are incredibly nutritious, being the main source of protein for most people in the developing world, as well as a crucial protein source for vegetarians.

Lotus Puffs in ricotta and Creamy Black Lentils, from Kurry Qulture in Astoria, Queens, on Jan. 7, 2016. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Lotus Puffs in ricotta and Creamy Black Lentils, from Kurry Qulture in Astoria, Queens, on Jan. 7. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Every culture seems to have a little-known, yet well-loved pulse dish. Although pulses often fly under most people’s radar, there is dal in India, chile con carne in Mexico, feijoada in Brazil, minestrone in Italy, falafel in Israel, and so on.

We want to support innovation. We want people to eat them in whatever form they want to.
— Jessie Hunter, director of domestic marketing, American Pulse Association

Pulses are the only food group recognized by the USDA as both a good source of vegetables, and of protein. Pulses are nutrient dense foods packed with B-vitamins, folate, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, soluble fiber, and protein, and low in sodium, calories, and allergens. 

Food processors have recently discovered that ground pulses in the form of flour, bran, starch, or isolated protein can do wonders for the nutritional content of snacks, drinks, pastas, and baked breads, as well as deliver cost-effective solutions for gluten-free and egg-free products.

Jessie Hunter, director of domestic marketing for the American Pulse Association, says processed pulses are an emerging science that is seeing a lot of experimentation right now, highlighting the products’ versatility.

“We want to support innovation. We want people to eat them in whatever form they want to,” she said.

Although there is always support for the increased consumption of pulses in their whole form, McGreevy says, “we will see the products in the food product realm because they offer such a nutritional bump to the whole food.”

Pea Beginnings

Researchers have found evidence that peas, beans, and lentils were grown in ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia as far back as 10,000 years ago.

In America, pulses have enjoyed a relatively short history. Thomas Jefferson is one of the earliest known modern American pulse lovers. The favorite vegetable that he grew at his home and garden in Monticello, Virginia, was the English pea, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

It is said he used to participate in pea contests every spring, according to family accounts, where he would race his neighbors to produce the first. The winner had to host a community feast featuring the round green vegetable.

Beans are native to Central and South America, where they were planted in rotation with corn and squash to ward off disease, so they didn’t have far to travel northward. Lentils and chickpeas were brought over from the Middle East. Settlers began farming beans in New York in the mid-1800s, with lentils and chickpeas becoming popular in the early 20th century as the pulses adapted well to northern soils.

Top 6 Pulses Grown in the US
(Units in million pounds) 
Dry peas—1,715
Pinto beans—983
Navy beans—442
Black beans—399
Garbanzo beans—280
SOURCE: USDA Economic Research Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service

Today, the United States is the third-largest exporter of pulses in the world after Canada and Burma (also known as Myanmar), with 976 million metric tons exported in 2014, according to Agri Exchange

In 2014, the United States produced almost 5 billion pounds of dry pulses, with a value of $1.3 billion, on 2.8 million acres, according to the USDA. McGreevy predicts the U.S. will plant about 3.5 million acres of pulses in 2016, with a little less than a third of that expected to go into yellow pea protein for the food processing industry.

The rolling hills and deep, productive soils of Tim McGreevy's farm in eastern Washington state. (Courtesy of Tim McGreevy)
The rolling hills, and deep, productive soils of Tim McGreevy’s farm in eastern Washington state. (Courtesy of Tim McGreevy)

More Research Needed

Pulses are not genetically modified organisms (GMO). Call it a bad thing, or a good thing, but these seeds were left out of the Green Revolution, which built up corn, soy, rice, and wheat seeds with powerful breeding and genetics, making GMO seeds incredibly productive, while staving off world hunger at the time.

McGreevy assures us that while farmers are anxious to see more research being done on pulses, there are still no plans to release genetically modified pulse seeds. “There will be no GMOs coming out of the U.S. until such time as consumers say otherwise,” he says.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, between 1961 and 2012, production of corn, wheat, rice, and soya each grew between 200 percent and 800 percent, while pulses expanded by only 59 percent over the same time frame.

One could say a renaissance of pulse popularity is well underway.

As a result of the pulse seed being left alone, there are still hundreds of varieties being grown in the world—a fact that has researchers hopeful the biodiversity will help the world adapt to the perils of climate change, if it comes to that.

Pulses can grow anywhere, in the tropics or in the desert, says McGreevy. It is not like quinoa, a grain the U.N. recently promoted, which is adapted mainly to the Andes mountain region.

In testimony to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee in the run-up to the 2014 Farm Bill, Denis Engelhard, a dry bean farmer from Tuscola County, Mich., and president of the USA Dry Bean Council at the time, emphasized the potential of pulses to tackle chronic disease and world hunger.

Americans consume about 7.6 pounds of pulses per person each year.

The Farm Bill awarded $125 million over five years to conduct health and nutrition research into pulses, and the USDA was given $10 million to buy pulse foods and introduce them into school food programs.

Combined with the U.N. action, which has pulse advocates all over the world holding events to raise awareness, one could say a renaissance of pulse popularity is well underway.

The Global Pulse Confederation is expecting its largest-ever gathering this February in Jaipur, India, to launch the International Year of Pulses there, along with an expected 1,200 delegates, according to India Pulses and Grain Association Chairman Pravin Dongre. India is a vital part of the pulse trade as its largest producer and consumer.

A research conclave in Africa in late February will bring together experts to share knowledge about how to better grow and utilize these crops. The developing world still doesn’t reach productivity levels near what the U.S. and Canada achieves. Disease, insects, and seed quality are some of the other concerns.

Americans consume about 7.6 pounds of pulses per person each year, according to the USDA. This is down from a high of 9.6 pounds during 1941–43.

The reason is that, given a choice, most people would prefer to eat meat. The lion’s share of increased earnings in the developing world are usually spent on meat, according to Henk Hoogenkamp, an industry consultant with deep expertise in vegetable protein.

It is an issue the world must grapple with, considering the intensive land, water, and resource needs of the meat industry, and it’s likely part of the reason for promoting pulses now, according to Hoogenkamp.

There are hundreds of thousands of acres of fallow land in the U.S. that could be planted with pulses.

At the same time, population growth alone will continue to spur demand for pulses. The FAO points out that the world’s most populous country, China, recently transitioned from net-exporter of pulses to a net-importer.

The second-most populous country, India, late last year experienced what the media started referring to as “dal shock.” Prices for some pulses as much as tripled after a poor harvest led to shortages, threatening the protein supply for millions of the country’s poorest people, and impacting global markets.

McGreevy, always the optimist, confidently predicts that demand for pulses in the future is going to be “huge,” and this is why pulse farmers are gearing up now.

McGreevy says there are hundreds of thousands of acres of fallow land in the U.S. that could be planted with pulses to increase supply. In the Montana rainfall zone alone, there are 300,000 acres of summer fallow that could go into pulse crops.

Although it would seem like a win-win—that farmers can plant otherwise unproductive land and earn income, while improving their soils—some of the farmers still need to be convinced.

But it’s coming, says McGreevy. When early adopters tell their neighbors about the benefits of growing pulses, others will follow, he says.

“We will have to increase affordable vegetable proteins, and we are that crop.”