Beans are our legacy. They could also be our culinary key to surviving the 21st century.
By SYD BAUMEL
The UN has named 2016 the “International Year of Pulses.” No, they’re not talking about that throbbing vein in our necks. Put more simply, this is The Year of the Bean. And it’s about time.
Beans, lentils, legumes, pulses – call these protein-rich, pod-enclosed seeds whatever you like – are our legacy. Most of us come from cultures where cheap beans, not costly meats, were – and in some cases still are – a staple protein. But most of us have strayed from that traditional cuisine. We have abandoned the rich variety of leguminous flavours, shapes and colours for the flashy cheap date of factory-farmed meat, milk, cheese and eggs.
We need to do a one-eighty. Why? Because it’s 2016.
Beans and other pulses, together with their partner in cheap, plant-based protein, cereal grains, are the greenest, most sustainable way to feed the world.
In a report several years ago, the United Nations Environmental Programme cautioned that as we hurtle toward a collision between mounting overpopulation, diminishing agricultural capacity and accelerating climate change, “a substantial reduction of impacts [will] only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
Last year, the nutritional scientists tasked with advising the U.S. government on its Dietary Guidelines for Americans (commonly known as the Food Pyramid or MyPlate) wrote to the decisionmakers in Washington:
“A dietary pattern higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet. The U.S. population should be encouraged to move towards the dietary pattern noted above while decreasing overall total calories.”
So when the UN dedicates a year to the bean, it’s not just pumping a commodity.
Mind you, it is classifying it that way, and we need to correct that before we go any further. In keeping with the practice of its Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN classifies legumes that are sold fresh, not dried (think green beans, frozen peas, edamame) as vegetable crops, not pulses. Nor do peanuts and soybeans, which are traded and classified as oilseeds, get to wear a party hat for the official International Year of Pulses. But they do for the unofficial Year of the Bean, because they’re all part of the same botanical family which so admirably helps fill the gap in protein, iron and zinc that can arise when we eat less animal food.
It’s true that, ounce for ounce, fresh, frozen or cooked dried beans don’t pack the same punch as meat, fish, milk and eggs when it comes to those nutrients. But that needn’t be an issue. Even vegans, who eat no animal food whatsoever, can more than meet their protein and trace mineral needs with help from beans, as nutritional authorities like the American Dietetic Association attest.
The fact is North Americans adults typically eat much more protein (around 80 grams per day) than nutritionists say we need (around 50 to 60 grams, depending on gender or weight). Overdo it, and our kidneys feel the strain.
So swap out three ounces of chicken (25.7 grams of protein) from your curry with three ounces of chick peas (7.4 grams) and you’ll probably still be eating too much protein. If not – if, say, you’re a senior losing bone mass, which requires calcium and protein – it’s not exactly a hardship to enjoy a cup of nicely seasoned chick peas (14.5 grams of protein) or a smaller serving of protein-rich soy. Three ounces of calcium-set firm tofu will give you 14.5 grams of protein and nearly 700 milligrams of calcium.
“Less is more” may also apply to the type of iron that abounds in red meat. By eating less of it and more of the nonheme iron found in beans and other plant foods, men and postmenopausal women may actually lower their risk for heart disease, diabetes and perhaps even cancer and dementia.
All things considered, with beans the bottom line is not what you lose when you eat them instead of meat. It’s what you gain.
For example, you won’t find any fibre in food that comes from an animal. But beans are brimming with it, especially the soluble kind that reduces cardiovascular risk factors, like LDL cholesterol, and discourages blood sugar from rising into diabetic territory.
It’s much the same for magnesium, an essential mineral commonly in short supply among omnivores (there’s barely any in animal flesh). It abounds in beans.
When it comes to fat, beans, with the exception of peanuts and soybeans, have very little of it – and zero cholesterol. Although authorities have grown increasingly skeptical that dietary cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, a recent meta-analysis suggests it may indeed clog the arteries of people with diabetes.
What little fat beans typically have is good fat: mostly essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (we need these, like vitamins) and heart-friendly monounsaturated fatty acids. In contrast, while animal fats have some good fatty acids too, they abound in potentially artery-clogging saturated fatty acids. Beans have little.
With nutritional differences like these, it’s not surprising that diets with less meat and more beans – including vegetarian and vegan diets – appear to be conducive to better health, including less cardiovascular disease (hypertension, clogged arteries, heart attacks, strokes), type 2 diabetes and even prostate and breast cancer, in the case of soybeans.
So, eat more Lentil Pilaf and less Beef Stroganoff, and you’re probably doing your body good. But what about the planet? Yes. That, too.
From Planet Beef to Planet Bean
The key to understanding why plant-based protein staples like beans are inherently much better for the planet – by conserving natural resources, limiting pollution and preventing disruptive climate change – than animal-based protein is efficiency.
With the rare exception of animals fed entirely on unirrigated pasture or food waste, for every pound of corn, soy or other cultivated crops that farmers feed to animals, at best only a few ounces end up as meat, eggs or cheese (milk is an exception because it’s mostly water). Most of what they feed to livestock is burned off by the animals’ muscles and metabolism or becomes bones and other animal parts of little or no value to humans. Beef cattle, for example, even though they typically spend their first 12 to 18 months eating grass, almost always spend their last few months packed into feedlots. There, they are “finished” (fattened) so intensively with pulse- and grain-based feed that by the time their existence has been reduced to chuck steak and Papa Burgers, the equivalent of over 30 pounds of cooked grains and beans has been squandered to produce one pound of boneless beef. (This is based on industry statistics of 6 dry-weight pounds of feed needed to produce one pound of live weight steer, yielding 40 percent meat. As a rule, feed conversion ratios are based on dry weight in, live weight out.)
Even the most Machiavellian industrial techniques to turn feed into food can’t compete with beans. Today’s “broiler” (meat) chickens have been genetically selected for their ability to grow very fat, very fast. With the help of antibiotic-laced feed (which also stimulates weight gain), they plump up so rapidly that some die on the job. Broilers are normally sent to slaughter at the tender age of six weeks, but these workplace casualties, with their unnaturally top-heavy bodies barely supported on their naturally spindly legs, drop dead (usually of heart failure) even before their premature date with destiny.
Despite growing up in a densely crowded barn with little room for wasting “inputs” (feed) on exercise, it still takes the equivalent of four or five pounds of cooked grains and beans to produce one pound of whole chicken. Throw away the feathers, bones and other inedible parts, and the efficiency is even less.
Chicken meat may be high in protein, but considerably more plant protein goes in than comes out.
“Layer hens” are cut from a different genetic cloth. Their purpose is to convert feed into eggs, not meat. Crammed together in wire cages so confining they can barely stretch a wing, let alone peck around a barnyard, they have even less opportunity to waste precious feed on selfish exercise. About every 30 hours they lay a new egg – almost twice as many as Old MacDonald’s hens. Still, they convert plant protein to animal protein about as inefficiently as broiler chickens do.
Modern dairy cows have been bred to lactate so profusely that they are “spent” as milk producers and sent to slaughter by the age of four or five. Typically confined most of the time to narrow stalls, they give their all to make milk for people they will never know, not their own calves. Even so, dairy cows only convert about 10 percent of the dry weight of their feed (which includes hay) into the dry weight of their milk.
And so it goes for all species of livestock. The upshot? Every time we eat a serving of meat, milk or eggs, we’re consuming all the resources and pollution that went into producing many more servings of legumes and grains. Our environmental footprint is that much bigger – even before we start measuring the cow farts.
It’s Not a Gas
It’s fitting that The Year of the Bean follows the year when the world’s leaders finally got serious about keeping global warming since preindustrial times under 2 degrees Celsius and preferably under 1.5.
We’re already nudging up against 1 degree, and most of that has happened in just the past 40 years.
From here on in, we’re playing chicken with catastrophic climate change.
Pressure to feed a hungry world inefficiently and unsustainably with meat instead of wheat is driving the conversion of rainforests into soybean plantations – not for hippies, but for livestock. A slashed and burned forest is a carbon sink reduced to a chimney.
Far worse for the climate is all the flatulence and excrement produced by over 50 billion cows, chickens, pigs and other animals raised and killed for meat, milk and eggs every year.
In ruminants (cows, goats, sheep), this flatulence is rife with methane (CH4), a potent greenhouse gas that heats our climate about 100 times more strongly than carbon dioxide (CO2) over the 12 and-a-half years it takes for most of it to break down into CO2 and water.
Methane also outgasses from the poop of all farmed animals, as does an even more potent greenhouse gas: nitrous oxide (N2O).
Perhaps you’re wondering, “but what about all the methane we ’emit’ when we eat beans instead of beef?” It turns out it’s a fart in the bucket. Research suggests our meagre, bean-induced methane emissions increase the carbon footprint of producing, transporting and cooking those beans by less than one percent.
That’s a tiny fraction of an already very slight footprint that varies from about 1 kilogram of CO2e per kilogram of lentils to 2 kg CO2e per kg of dried beans, according to a review of the literature by the Environmental Working Group. (The “e” in CO2e stands for “equivalent,” because it includes the footprint of methane and all the other associated greenhouse gas emissions, standardized by convention to a 100-year timescale. It’s worth mentioning that this long timescale underestimates the immediate impact of livestock emissions and the opportunity to rapidly mitigate global warming by moving from meat back to beans.)
As you might expect, the carbon footprint of beef is much larger: 27 kg per kg. Lamb is a gargantuan 39.
In apparent contrast, at just 1.9, milk’s carbon footprint looks like a deal. But with 90 percent water, the protein yield of milk (33 grams per kg) is a fraction of beans’ (about 90 grams per kg; 180 g/kg for soybeans). We get a clearer picture with the carbon footprint of cheese: 13.5. Though cheese has slightly more protein than soy, its carbon footprint is over six times bigger.
The carbon footprints of other animal products are smaller than ruminant meat and cheese, from pork (12.1), farmed salmon (11.9) and turkey (10.9) on down to chicken (6.9), canned tuna (6.1), eggs (4.8) and yogurt (2.2).
Things only start to look better when we come to wild fish and seafood. These obviously aren’t weighed down by the carbon footprint of feed crops. Nor do they belch methane. But fishers still use diesel to chase them. One study suggests fish easily caught in bulk, close to shore, might have a carbon footprint that’s either comparable to (skipjack tuna, mackerel, scallops, North American salmon) or even better (sardines) than beans. But other species, like sole, shrimp and lobster, have already outweighed beans’ carbon footprint by the time the boats return to shore.
Carbon footprints aside, wild fish and seafood are fraught with worries about overfishing and even extinction. You can never overfarm beans.
With a little help from more beans and less beef, we can save ourselves from catastrophic climate change. But we still have to contend with another existential threat.
Since 1950, humanity has tripled its population from 2.5 billion to 7.3. By 2050, the UN estimates we’ll be pushing 10 billion and topping 11 by 2100.
We’re already having trouble keeping nearly one billion of ourselves fed, and it doesn’t help that we keep feeding so much of our limited agricultural yield to livestock (or converting it to biofuels, which is controversial at best as a would-be green energy strategy). By cutting out the animals we have selfishly conscripted as middlemen, we could feed four billion more people, according to the beef and bean counters at the University of Minnesota. Just cutting down would accomplish wonders.
We need to start moving in that direction. After all, it’s The Year of the Bean. So let’s get soaking.