Making the most of pulses

8 Feb 2024
Lentil trial at NIAB

For World Pulses Day 2024, NIAB's Dr Phil Howell takes a look at some of the NIAB work around these crops...

Pulses - the dried, edible seeds of plants from the legume (Fabaceae) family - represent excellent sources of protein, fibre and minerals. They are widely used both as food ingredients and as animal feed. Many UK farmers grow field (faba) beans and peas, but as consumers we are also familiar with other pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, and a wide range of other beans such as adzuki, black, borlotti, butter, cannellini, kidney, mung and of course haricot or navy ‘baked beans’, most often seen covered in tomato sauce and served on toast!

Legumes are particularly useful crops because, through a close relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, they typically have a low fertiliser requirement, especially compared to more hungry crops like wheat and oilseed rape, and farmers often include them in crop rotations because of the boost they give to soil fertility.

NIAB have an established research programme in faba bean, led by Dr Tom Wood, and often also work on other pea and bean species, usually on aspects of disease control. Recently, we have also begun to explore the potential of chickpeas, lentils and other legume crops more usually associated with hotter, drier climates, to help farmers provide home-grown ingredients for the rapidly-growing plant-based protein sector.

For example, a new Defra-funded research project ‘Cicero’ is exploring the potential for domestic chickpea production and aims to pump-prime the UK’s first chickpea breeding programme. UK food companies annually import 60,000 tonnes for products which range from stand-alone tins or pouches of cooked chickpeas, packets of dried pulses, through to ingredients of ready meals and bakery products. Cicero will explore the possibility of displacing imported chickpeas through domestic production.

“Chickpeas are a classic example of the challenges the legume sector is facing” says project lead, NIAB’s Dr Phil Howell. “Manufacturers must often rely on imports to service the increasing demand for healthy plant-based foods. While this crop can be grown in the UK, its yields and quality are unreliable, because current varieties are not well-adapted. Ultimately, we need better varieties bred specifically for UK conditions, but we also need to improve our agronomy know-how to get the most out of varieties – now and in the future.”