Fingers on the pulse: Growing healthy, sustainable crops for Scotland

A group of farmers growing peas, beans and lentils has got together with processors, buyers and researchers to take more Scottish, locally grown pulses to market.

  • Pulses can be a healthy, cheap and nutritious part of our diet
  • Growing pulses also benefits the environment - by fixing nitrogen and reducing the need for artificial fertilisers, they can improve soil health and benefit wildlife
  • We don't have a well-established supply chain in Scotland - but now a group of farmers, processors, wholesalers and researchers have come together to establish a clear route to market and processing options for locally produced pulses

As vegetarians have known since the 1960s, pulses, also called legumes or plant-based proteins, can be a healthy, cheap and nutritious part of our diet. They can be grown in Scotland, and growing them benefits the environment: by fixing nitrogen and reducing the need for artificial fertilisers, which improves soil health and benefits nature.

Yet we don’t have a well-established supply chain for pulses - until now, that is. Now, six farmers from the south and east of Scotland are working with processors, wholesalers and researchers from the James Hutton Institute in a Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group to establish a clear route to market and processing options for locally produced pulses.

"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"

Group member Elizabeth Massie of 300-acre mixed farm Pressmennan, near Dunbar, in East Lothian says she plans to put more pulses in her rotations. “Pulses aren’t that developed in Scotland yet,” she says, “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.”


PICTURE: Elizabeth Massie on farm

“We’ve farmed in quite a conventional way for over 50 years and have become quite cereal-based.  That’s our main income stream, but since we’re pouring a lot of money into fertiliser and other inputs, I felt we needed to broaden our rotation a bit more.

“I looked at pulses as they’re something we can put in as a combinable crop. We tried a small field of peas which went well and didn’t require any fertiliser, so I started thinking whether there were opportunities for different markets, and how I could get better at growing them.

Watch: presentation by the group at The Innovation Game online event on March 15, 2021

“Pulses are a key part of not using as many inputs, so should reduce costs. Our yields might come  down, but profitability will stay similar. And the benefits to the soil for not putting on as much chemical fertiliser is a real driver for me. It was incredible seeing the wildlife that was in our herbal ley last summer. It made us all smile!

“I was very encouraged to come into the RISS group and discuss possibilities for taking Scottish pulses forward. It was great to hear what other people had been doing, with a vision of where Scottish agriculture can go for the benefit of all.”

“The irony is our feed and food systems are legume-dependent, yet we import most of our  high-protein legume grains"

James Hutton Institute researcher Dr Pete Iannetta has been evangelical about pulses for some time. He says: “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. That means we forfeit the potential soil benefits from cultivation, and human-health benefits from direct consumption."


PICTURE: Dr Pete Ianetta of the James Hutton Institute

“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 pulses: this could be fifteen times higher.

“If you want to protect environmental, 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.”

"This is an industry that could be developed with benefits for everyone"

Farming and Land Use Manager at Soil Association Scotland, Ana Allamand, facilitates the RISS group. She says: “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.”

“Yes, more cooperation and research is required,” says Elizabeth Massie, “and we need to develop more of a market, but it’s a very exciting time to be in the industry. 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!”

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