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They come in various colours, shapes and sizes, and they start life within pods, before being harvested as edible nuggets. They are practically indestructible if properly dried and stored. They have been a staple food in the human diet since earliest times.
They are pulses: beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas. And this year they’ve been given special recognition by the UN General Assembly, which has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Having a year dedicated to them is an honour they share with rice, which was given this status in 2004, the potato, honoured in 2008, and quinoa, in 2013.
The word pulse comes from the Latin puls, meaning pottage, a kind of porridge. They are, as the UN points out, “a critical source of plant-based proteins and amino acids for people around the globe, as well as a source of plant-based protein for animals”.  Although embraced by various vegetarian religious groups, Western ‘’counterculture’’, and vegan and vegetarian movements more broadly, pulses still represent, for many, the epitome of rustic simplicity. They are often regarded as a poor persons’ food, a homely food that usually takes second place to prestigious grains such as rice, and to meat. A Hindu proverb proclaims: “Rice is God, but lentils are my life.” 
The health benefits of eating pulses range from controlling obesity to managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions. And yet, despite their deep-rooted importance to humans and their health benefits, as people become more prosperous, their desire for pulses seems to diminish.
Jack and his beans
The cultural embeddedness of pulses as well as the way they intermesh human food, animal food, rural simplicity and poverty make for a fascinating pottage in themselves. They call to mind the story of Jack and the beanstalk, a folk tale that grew in popularity in eighteenth-century England, but which some scholars say has roots 5,000 years before.
The story goes like this: there was once a poor widow living with her son Jack and a cow that was producing no milk. Jack is sent to sell the cow at market, but on his way meets an old man who persuades him to exchange the cow for a handful of ‘magic’ beans. When he arrives home, Jack’s mother is furious and throws the beans outside the house. In the morning, mother and son discover a gigantic beanstalk in front of their cottage, reaching up into the clouds. Jack climbs the beanstalk, and, in the land at the top, encounters a dangerous, cannibalistic giant. Fortunately Jack manages to trick the giant and escapes, together with the giant’s magic hen, which lays golden eggs, changing Jack’s fortunes forever. Jack clambers back down the beanstalk a wealthy man and rejoins his delighted mother.
I find the relationships in the story between beans and poverty on the one hand, and between beans and enrichment on the other — as well as the giant’s cannibalistic nature — to be parable-like. This is something I will return to shortly.
Pulses, with their combination of nutrients and the ease with which many can be grown, certainly can lift subsistence farmers out of poverty. The UN move to dedicate a year to pulses should enhance their status and significance, encouraging more people to grow them and bolstering support for their cultivation from agencies, local and international.
How much soy are we producing?
284 million tons of soy were produced globally in 2013/14
75% of this production was used as animal feed, helping to produce eggs, meat, fish and dairy products
113 million hectares of land was used to grow the soy produced in 2013/2014, which included parts of the Amazon, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest, and the Gran Chaco
Global production of soy is predicted to double by 2050
Credit: WWF International
There is lots to build on. Pulses have travelled around the world with different ethnic groups and often
encapsulate the cuisines of entire cultures — consider the immediate association between dhal (lentils) and Indian cuisine, hummus (chickpeas) and the Middle East, or tofu (soybeans) and the Far East. Local and regional pride in these products can be built upon to counter recent trends in global agriculture and see a shift back to localised food production.
However there is one narrative relating to pulses that sounds a note of caution, and that relates to one particular pulse: the soya bean. Most beans are grown on a relatively small scale, are consumed by humans and undergo little processing. But soya beans — the cultivation of which has spread exponentially around the world — are grown on an industrial scale, much of the harvest is consumed by animals and beans are normally highly processed.
Although this processing makes sense when used to make the beans more digestible for humans, the large-scale production of soya, particularly for animal feed, raises some major concerns. This includes the transformation of massive tracts of forest and savannah, particularly in South America, into soya bean plantations, and a contribution to what many regard as overproduction of meat for human consumption: meat production uses much more energy and resources than the production of plant-based food.
To return to the story of Jack and his beanstalk, I pointed out above that it is parable-like, highlighting things to think about, both good and bad — the cultural significance of pulses, their association with poverty and their potential to lift their growers out of poverty. But there is also the cannibalistic figure, the giant at the top of the beanstalk. This macabre figure stands out as a warning about the destruction caused by the unchecked soya production threatening the environmental integrity of the planet.
In its ability to put across such a complex picture through the frame of a deceptively simple and mesmerising folk tale, the story could be used to get people — both schoolchildren and adults — thinking about pulses through theatre and storytelling.
Kaz Janowski is joint editor at SciDev.Net