Legumes (or “pulses”) have a future in Flanders. Consumer and retail demand is rising, all links in the chain are locally present and the first attempts to grow them are promising. In addition, all parties are very enthusiastic about working with them. This became clear during a sector meeting that ILVO organized in collaboration with Inagro, Ghent University and University College Ghent. Jana Baeyens (ILVO): "The challenge now is to further master the cultivation technique and set up local chains. All of the basic requirements for successful cultivation are already in place.”
On 27 August, 50 farmers, contractors, processors and traders inspected promising leguminous crops on ILVO fields, including lentils, chickpeas, field beans, peas, edamame, soy and kidney beans. After that working visit, they participated in a workshop in which they discussed the bottlenecks and opportunities for the crops in Flanders. The sector meeting 'Building chains together for locally grown legumes' was a coordinated by ILVO in collaboration with Inagro, UGent and HOGENT.
Green cover crops with a lot of potential
Legumes are interesting crops for Flanders for several reasons. They fix nitrogen from the air and thus provide part of their own fertilization as well as some for the next crop. This makes them a good fit for a broader crop rotation and answers the European ambition to strongly reduce the use of fertilizers (see below). Moreover, a variety of legumes attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, which promotes biodiversity. Moreover - and this is an important observation - all the links for growing and marketing legumes are locally present.
Jana Baeyens (ILVO): "We have legume breeders, seed companies, farmers looking for profitable crops, contractors with the right machinery, primary processors who dry, clean, possibly grind and pack the harvest, traders, food companies that process the beans or flour into a tasty end product, retailers, and of course a growing proportion of vegetarians or flexitarians in the population".
Increasing demand for vegetable proteins
The seeds or beans of legumes are especially interesting for people who want to vary the protein sources (meat, fish, dairy…and plant-based foods) on their plate. This market that is clearly growing. Today, the majority of chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, etc. are imported from outside Europe. But supply is uncertain and prices fluctuate sharply - a major motivation for primary processors, traders and food companies to look at what is possible locally. And for growers, who are looking for ways to spread their income and their risk more evenly.
Jana Baeyens (ILVO): "We see farmers experimenting spontaneously with legumes such as chickpeas and kidney beans on a small scale. This is good news, because protein diversification starts with the primary producer. They are looking for crops that yield something. The fact that they are also green cover crops with which they can expand their cultivation rotation is a good thing".
Research assignment: cultivation technique and building chains
The assignment for the ILVO researchers is clear and the sector emphasized it during the sector meeting: help us fine-tune the crops and help us find each other. ILVO, together with Inagro, UGent and HOGENT, will take up the challenge and focus on different tracks. What is certain is that the 'measurement' of the ecosystem services provided by legumes will also become a point of attention, in order to objectively map out the 'value' of legumes for society and their contribution to the European Green Deal.
Legumes and the Green Deal
The European Commission has expressed strong green ambitions in this Green Deal. The accompanying Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies state that the use and harmfulness of pesticides must be halved by 2030, fertilizer use must be reduced by a fifth and nutrient loss must also be halved. This is to protect the environment and biodiversity. The Farm to Fork strategy also advocates fair economic returns in the agri-food chain and healthy, affordable and sustainable food accessible to all Europeans.
Jana Baeyens (ILVO): "Legumes fit nicely into this story. We want to work on all these facets. But we don't want to do this alone, because it is clear that the introduction of such a new crop has to be a chain story. Farmers and companies with ambitions in legumes are encouraged to already come forward.
Working together on protein diversification
ILVO, Inagro, HOGENT and UGent are strongly committed to the development of local protein-rich crops in Flanders. The soy and quinoa programs are best known, but they are also working hard on peas, field beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, edamame (green-harvested soy), etc. For the knowledge centers, this fits into a broader framework of knowledge development for companies and partners who want to bring a wider range of protein to the human food market. In addition to research, investments are linked to this. In the Food Pilot of ILVO and Flanders' FOOD in Melle, a whole 'protein line' for processing vegetable protein is being constructed and at the ILVO site in Merelbeke, a drying and triage line will be built for smaller crops with sales in the human food market.
Flemish Minister of Agriculture and Food Hilde Crevits: "The first results of the research into the cultivation and application of local protein-rich crops are promising. I experienced this myself a few weeks ago during a visit to the trial fields and the Food Pilot at ILVO. These are new crops where the interest of both farmers and potential customers is constantly growing. They are crops that respond to multiple challenges: changing consumption patterns, climate objectives, local protein supply, etc. It is crucial that we guide and encourage farmers to take up these challenges. We will intensify our efforts in this area in the future.
Nele Jacobs, communication ILVO: 0472/530696, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jana Baeyens, researcher ILVO: email@example.com
Hilde Muylle, researcher ILVO: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonas Claeys, researcher Inagro: email@example.com
Kevin Dewitte, researcher at UGent: firstname.lastname@example.org
Joos Latré, researcher HOGENT: email@example.com
Dirk Reheul, professor at UGent: firstname.lastname@example.org