COVID-19 has disrupted the production, handling and shipment of pulses but it has also had a major positive impact for the sector.
“There has been a huge shift in demand for pulses,” said Randy Duckworth, executive director of the Global Pulse Confederation.
Beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas have been flying off store shelves around the world as people embrace changing diets.
Duckworth’s member companies are telling him this isn’t a temporary shift. COVID has caused people to embrace plant-based meat alternatives and to discover the sustainability aspects of pulses.
“They are anticipating increased demand is here to stay, (although) maybe not at the current levels, which have been extraordinary,” he told delegates attending the International Grains Council’s virtual annual conference.
“One of my largest members planned a 10 percent increase for the next year.”
Another speaker at the conference said the European Union needs to get in on that action.
David Gouache, deputy director of Terres Inovia, a France-based crop research and technology transfer firm, said the EU is “significantly behind” the rest of the world in legume production.
A mere 2.1 percent of the EU’s arable land is devoted to pulses and other legumes. That compares to 28.3 percent in the Americas, 13.8 percent in Africa and 13 percent in Asia.
Gouache said the EU needs to boost its production to the 10 to 15 percent level for a number of reasons.
In France, that would require the conversion of five percent of the country’s cereal acres to pulses.
“This is nowhere close to a revolution, just an evolution,” he said.
The main reason to expand legume production is to boost stagnating wheat yields.
An estimated 20 to 25 percent of cereal yield loss over the last two decades could have been prevented by including nitrogen-fixing pulses in EU rotations. That’s an additional 30 bushels per acre of wheat.
It would also help mitigate climate change by reducing the amount of synthetic fertilizer required to grow cereal crops.
The problem is that it is hard to convince farmers to grow pulses.
“Pea is not the most economically interesting crop when compared to other crops we see in European crop rotations,” said Gouache.
But farmers are failing to factor in the increased yields and reduced nitrogen fertilizer costs on the following wheat crop, generating an extra $22.92 per acre.
Roquette is a French company that is encouraging farmers to grow peas. It operates a pea fractionation plant in France and is building another in Portage la Prairie, Man.
Marie-Laure Empinet, external relations officer for Roquette, said flexitarian diets that started in the United States are gaining popularity in Europe.
“The rise in plant-based foods is huge and extremely rapid,” she said.
The industry is experiencing double-digit annual growth, which is rarely seen in the food sector.
“A new gastronomy is emerging,” she said.
“It is the beginning of a new cuisine.”
In order to encourage the production of peas and other pulses, Gouache believes the French government needs to consider financially rewarding farmers for growing crops that reduce greenhouse gases.
He also thinks European governments need to be particularly cautious when it comes to developing new pesticide policies that can severely impact the development of niche crops.
French fababean production started to take off in the 2000s with acreage growing from about 50,000 acres in the 1990s to a peak of 370,000 acres in 2010.
But then the French government banned bifenthrin, an insecticide for controlling the fababean weevil, and plantings have plummeted to around 150,000 acres.
“It can be very, very easy to kill a small crop or a diversification crop,” said Gouache.
He worries that is what will happen with the EU’s newly announced Farm to Fork strategy that aims to reduce pesticide use by 50 percent over the next decade.
Gouache said the irony is that in their zeal to improve agriculture’s environmental footprint, governments in the EU are making it more difficult to introduce the most sustainable crops on the planet.
He said there needs to be exemptions to pesticide bans for products that assist in growing pulses.