by Dave Yanko
A growing number of consumers are adding lentils to the family diet as a nutritious alternative for soups, stews, salads and side dishes. Rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, lentils have a milder flavour and nuttier taste than beans, one of their pulse cousins.
Environmentally perceptive consumers also know that lentil production and consumption can help benefit the planet. Lentil production in Western Canada actually generates a net negative carbon footprint. That means more carbon is sequestered or sunk into the soil during production than what’s emitted into the atmosphere. It’s just one reason why incorporating lentils into our diet can help contribute to a more sustainable food system and mitigate the environmental challenges we face. There are several others but, first, a little terminology.
Although the words pulse and legume are often used interchangeably, they have different meaning. A pulse is the edible (dried) seed of a legume plant – like lentil – while the word legume refers to the entire plant, including leaves, stems and pods. In addition to lentils, common pulses include beans, chickpeas and split peas while familiar legumes include fresh peas, lima beans and green or string beans. All pulses are legumes but not all legumes are pulses.
Another way lentil production contributes to environmental sustainability is its comparatively low water demand. In the Prairies, lentil crops require no irrigation and significantly less environmental water compared to other protein sources. They’re well adapted to the semi-arid Prairies and can tolerate a lot of drought stress.
Famers in Western Canada often use lentils as part of a crop rotation system in which different crops are grown in a specific sequence over three- to seven-year cycles. Crop rotation is a natural way to disrupt weed, disease and insect cycles. Including lentils in the rotation results in a more efficient use of water that leaves more soil moisture available for use by the following cereal or oilseed crop. Wheat and barley crops typically produce higher yields and have higher protein values when grown after pulses.
Pulses also have the ability to take nitrogen from the air and use nodules on their roots to convert it into a form that can be used by plants. This distinctive nitrogen fixation capacity improves soil fertility and reduces the need for added nitrogen fertilizers. And because pulses don’t use all the nitrogen they fix, crops like wheat or barley that follow them in a rotation benefit from an increase in soil nitrogen. Considering the entire crop rotation from a farmer, this benefits from a reduced requirement for synthetic fertilizer.
Growing lentils offers farmers a “zero waste’’ way to contribute to environmental sustainability. All portions of a lentil plant left over after the seeds have been harvested can be composted and redistributed onto the land, providing nutrients for the soil. Lentils, like many other crops grown in western Canada, are also well suited to no-till farming practices in which seeds are planted directly into the stubble of the previous crop instead of working up or tilling the land between crops.
No-till systems create a protective layer of plant material that helps retain soil moisture, enhance organic matter and improve the structure of the soil, an important element of sustainable agriculture and soil conservation. And because lentils have relatively shallow root systems and can grow well in minimal soil disturbance conditions, they’re well suited to no-till operations. More than 70 per cent of farmers in key agricultural regions of Saskatchewan and Alberta employ no-till systems on their farms.
Lentils are a healthy and nutritional food source whose high protein value makes them an excellent plant-based alternative to meat. There is also an emerging trend to blend animal and protein rich plants like beef and lentils into a single product like burgers.
Lentils promote sustainability through their low environmental impact, nitrogen-fixing capabilities, water conservation and ability to provide support for biodiversity. Each of these attributes contributes to a more resilient farming system. Incorporating lentils into our diet can be an important step toward creating a more sustainable food system.