What’s a pulse? Pulses are lentils, garbanzos, lupini, fava beans, dry peas and dry beans: everything in the genus phaseolus, like kidney beans and scarlet runner beans, lima beans and tepary beans. Also included are mung beans, azuki beans, black eyed peas and black gram in the genus vigna. Technically, the term is used for crops harvested solely for the dry seed. Green beans and green peas are considered vegetables until they are dried when—voila!—they magically become pulses. Soybeans and peanuts are pulses, but are usually excluded from the category because they are grown mostly for oil.
Pulse crops are widely grown in low-income countries where few animal products are eaten and in many regions pulses provide about a tenth of all the protein consumed. Think of all the lentil and gram dishes in India. But in addition to protein, pulses contain significant amounts of calcium, iron and the important amino acid lysine. It is easy to see how pulse crops play a major role in contributing to food security worldwide. And they are increasingly becoming recognized as an important component of a healthy diet in the industrialized world.
Pulse crops are also one of the most sustainable crops grown. It takes a mere 43 gallons of water to produce one pound of pulses, which compares quite favorably with the 1,799 gallons of water needed to produce a pound of beef. A bean crop actually improves the land upon which it is grown because pulses fix nitrogen in the soil. Only range-fed beef can make any claim to soil improvement.
Climbing down off the top of the food chain gives us many other options to explore for food. Pulses are one of the most sustaining and varied. As John Steinbeck Writes in Tortilla Flat,
“When you have four hundred pounds of beans in the house, you need have no fear of starvation. Other things, delicacies such as sugar, tomatoes, peppers, coffee, fish or meat may come sometimes miraculously, through the intercession of the Virgin, sometimes through industry or cleverness; but your beans are there, and you are safe. Beans are a roof over your stomach. Beans are a warm cloak against economic cold.”
Locally Delicious, Inc. is a non-profit organization engaged in education about the benefits of eating locally grown, organic food. We create and support projects designed to increase production of local organic food, with an emphasis on making good food accessible to all. We advocate for a healthy and sustainable local food system.