Pulses such as peas, beans and lentils are gaining new ground in Scotland.

Pulses such as lentils, peas and beans have multiple benefits, including their ability to capture nitrogen and so reduce the need for artificial fertilisers
Pulses such as lentils, peas and beans have multiple benefits, including their ability to capture nitrogen and so reduce the need for artificial fertilisers

People can eat them, they can be used to feed animals and even to make beer and gin, and as well as being nutritious they are good for the planet to boot.

A number of Scottish farmers and other businesses are turning to pulses, also known as legumes, in a bid to reduce their impact on the environment and provide greener food and drink.

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Legumes require no synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and so avoid negative environmental impacts on waterways, air and soils.

Dr Pete Iannetta, a researcher at the James Hutton Institute, is assisting Scottish farmers and growers move to pulses as part of a project backed by the Rural Innovation Support Service

They also benefit ecosystems as a whole, improving soil quality and providing nitrogen for other crops grown after them in the same ground.

And as vegetarians have known since the 1960s, pulses can form a healthy, cheap and nutritious part of the human diet.

On top of all that, they can be grown in Scotland, offering the opportunity to buy local – benefiting communities and cutting the carbon impact of imports.

So it’s perhaps surprising the country has lacked a well-established supply chain for pulses.

East Lothian farmer Elizabeth Massie says planting pulses, which improve soil, cut chemical use and can be sold on for food, is a “no-brainer”

But all that is changing.

Six farmers from the south and east of Scotland are working with processors, wholesalers and researchers to establish a clear route to market and processing options for locally produced pulses.

The project has been set up through the Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS), which is led by Soil Association Scotland.

James Hutton Institute researcher Dr Pete Iannetta, who is working with the group, is passionate about pulses and their properties.

“The irony is our feed and food systems are legume-dependent, yet we import most of our high-protein legume grains and almost all are for animal and aquaculture feed,” he said.

“That means we forfeit the potential soil benefits from cultivation, and human-health benefits from direct consumption.

“By using pulses in cropping rotations we can improve soil and increase the range of crops grown, plus reduce disease and pest incidence, lowering pesticide dependency.

“Currently, only one per cent of Scottish arable cropped land accommodates pulse – this could be 15 times higher.

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“If you want to protect environmental and human health and have truly sustainable economics, then legumes are the vehicle.

“But the market pull is more important than the production push.

“We don’t have any serious milling facilities or hulling facilities in Scotland – so it’s not just that we need to grow pulses, it’s that we need the capacity along the value chain to process as well, and we don’t currently have that in Scotland.”

RISS group member Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery, in Angus, has already begun growing peas to make the world’s first ever ‘climate-positive’ gin.

Meanwhile, Ayrshire-based Gordon Caldwell is about to add peas and fava beans to the range of fresh organic vegetables he produces.

East Lothian farmer Elizabeth Massie, who manages 300 acres near Dunbar, plans to include more legumes in her rotations.

She said: “Pulses aren’t that developed in Scotland yet, but to get a crop growing that requires less fertiliser, that you can sell and is better for your soil seems like a no brainer to me.

“With Brexit and Covid, people are more aware of local produce, but we’ve got more work to do.

“More pulses as part of a mixed diet is a great thing. If you can source that locally, that’s doubly wonderful.

“If the conditions in which these foods are produced are excellent for the environment, it’s a win all-round.”

Doug Christie, of Durie Farms in Fife, James Porter, of East Scryne Farm in Angus, and Mike Hyatt, of Baleveolan Croft on the Isle of Lismore are also part of the group.

Ana Allamand, farming and land use manager at Soil Association Scotland, facilitates the RISS group.

She said: “By mapping the supply chain we haven’t only found out what the industry needs to grow, but what the benefits are to farmers and consumers, and why it’s important to support them.

“This is an industry that could be developed, with benefits for everyone.

“The group now plans to set up a peer-to-peer network to explore varieties and routes to market.”

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