By Louise Davies
Thinking back a couple of years, before working at The Vegan Society, I can’t imagine getting excited at the prospect of someone growing chickpeas in Wales. To be honest, I’m not sure I even knew the difference between a pea, a bean and a pulse. But times have changed, and a few months ago I was genuinely messaging colleagues with the hot news that I’d discovered a chickpea grower in Wales.
We all know that vegans love hummus, but my excitement extended beyond the thought of a creamy dip.
At The Vegan Society, we’ve been working on a project called Grow Green. It makes the case for a transition away from animal farming and towards plant protein agriculture for the benefit of the environment, our health and animals. The humble bean (or chickpea) could play a large part in a sustainable food and farming system – being nutritious, healthy, sustainable and affordable. And it’s not just vegans making this case. Our latest report was written by respected think tank, the New Economics Foundation.
Since the report launch last year we’ve been talking to parliamentarians and policy makers about our recommendations, which include a new-entrant scheme for growers, public procurement policies which insist on British grown pulses, and a tax or subsidy cut to take into account the externalities of animal farming.
Some challenging ideas there, I know, but perhaps more so in Wales (and Scotland) where the terrain is less amenable to plant protein agriculture. Of course, the vegan priority is an end to animal farming and there are many diversification or exit options for farmers that don’t include growing. But vegans would like to see the food on our plates being grown in Britain too, so it’s important that we explore what is possible across the UK. So now you might be getting an idea of why the possibility of growing chickpeas here in Wales got me so excited!
David Burridge has a walled garden between Builth Wells and Rhayader, certainly not somewhere you would naturally associate with growing pulses. But David is determined to prove that we could be braver in our thinking around growing, and has grown everything from wasabi to okra. As well as chickpeas, he has grown several other pulses successfully. They all store very well for the winter, so will add variety to this otherwise quite barren time of the year. His vision for our hillsides includes terracing, where rather than grazing sheep, we could create flat areas where vegetables and grains could be grown. David has only scratched the surface of the growing potential here and wants field scale trials to inform on viability.
Other proponents of vegan organic farming tell me that this sort of land could be used for seed potatoes, hemp fibre, energy crops or agroforestry which could include productive trees like walnuts or hazelnuts.
We would like to see more research and development into plant protein agriculture, and also other types of vegan growing, to see what is possible and where. It’s not just vegans who eat vegan food, and this is shown by the exponential growth of plant-based foods in the UK. Here in Wales we could be capitalising on the innovations in plant milk. We’re currently growing thousands of tonnes of oats that are being fed to animals. We could be growing oats to make Welsh oat milk – great for our health and the economy, and so much more efficient. Currently for every 100 calories we feed to animals we get just 12 back by consuming their flesh and milk.
We know that some ancient grassland has huge biodiversity benefits, and a sensible way of retaining this is to have animals grazing on it. We would like to see free-living animals on the land (e.g. deer), or animals freed from farming living out their lives naturally. That said, much of our grassland is not ancient, and would hold much larger environmental benefits if converted to forest.
We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers and some genuinely sustainable solutions present dilemmas for green vegans. However, the inherent environmental damage of animal farming (grass-fed or not) needs to be addressed urgently.
Let’s take some inspiration from David and his chickpeas, and work towards a robust Welsh food and farming system centred around healthy plant foods.
Fancy branching out with your own planting? David recommends Jungle Seeds, Chiltern Seeds or Seeds from Italy
Louise Davies is Head of Campaigns, Policy and Research at The Vegan Society, and is particularly interested in the environmental benefits of plant-based eating. She lives near Hay-on-Wye and previously worked for the Wales Green Party.
4 thoughts on “Growing plant protein in Wales: the opportunities for pulses”
Very interesting article. I disagree with one thing – I do excited about growing chickpeas in Wales! More seriously, work by Amber Wheeler in Pembrokeshire suggests we could grow more vegetables in Wales. As for quinoa, it is already being grown in Britain and if the quinoa growing in the Andes is anything to go by, some varieties of this plant will grow at a great height and in a variety of climates and soils. For a plant-based sustainable diet we need to grow more plants. Great to learn about David experimenting in Builth. Must pay a visit.
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With dried pulses being possibly the most ideal and least carbon intensive of foodstuffs to be imported, both because of their nutrient density and long term keeping qualities, needing no refridgeration nor any other treatment, except being kept dry, it makes little sense to try and grow chickpeas or lentils in a climate that is very poorly suited to the plant. Yes, we need more vegetables to be grown in Wales, no doubt, but let’s concentrate on those that grow well in the cool, damp, low light Welsh conditions. When commercial vegetable growers like Riverford are already shifting the production of some of their vegetable range to France, because the sum total of carbon emissions of certain imported veg is still lower than those of that same veg being produced here in the UK and Hodmedod having considerable success at growing pulses for drying and even quinoa in the UK, this article feels more than a little out of touch with what’s already happening at the sustainable food production front in the UK.
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many thanks for this article. whilst i appreciate that some of the comments seem to suggest that importing grains and pulse from overseas is still more environmentally sustainable than growing at home, i think that a point worth considering, especially during this pandemic, is resilience.
yes, we can import wheat from Canada and the US, yes we can import beans and pulses from Europe – but, as this pandemic has shown, remove 10% of the workforce, and transport and logistics grind to a halt then no matter what you pay out, you cant get the items delivered.
i’ve personally met David and i can say that he is proving that Wales can be a very resilient food producer. in times like these we should be following his example and growing what we can, how we can, to not only relieve some of the pressure on the supply chains but also to keep reducing our carbon footprint.
The welsh government is streets ahead of the rest of the uk in terms of supporting the environment, they have altered the planing system to allow better, greener builds, they introduced the concept of moving construction away from bricks and mortar and back into timber. Timber is a very sustainable and negative carbon building material actually helping to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, rather than increase it.
why do i mention timber – because the welsh government have recognised that traditional crops are not suited to wales. you cant get he combine harvesters and tractors up some of the slopes in wales, but you can grow trees. the perfect sweet spot is 300-600m above sea level, which is around 70% of the welsh land mass.
below that level we should be growing crops of the right type. chickpeas isn’t a bad idea at all. they are relatively pest resistant as they exude a red “dew” which is a form of malic acid that keeps pests away, thus reducing the need for commercial pesticides, therefore its an ideal crop for inclusion into an organic system.
terracing of fields in wales would need looking at as not only would you be competing with the forestry industry but it also infrastructure heavy. to grow commercially you need to use machinery, not human labour, so the terraces would need to be fabricated in a way to support 10 tons of machinery and crops moving around, that’s a lot of reinforcement in the soil to allow the terrace walls to withstand this. so bring the field crops |(peas, beans etc) onto the lower, flatter areas.
i personally am having a go at growing chickpeas for my family. one person requires around 4 plants to provide a suitable amount of chick peas. that’s according to the research i have found so far. i’ll let you know how i get on.
Would be good if a rep from Vegan Society could attend: Brecon & Radnor branch of CPRW are hosting a conference entitled Welsh Sustainable Food & Farming on Saturday 17 September 2022 09:00 to 16:00. Think tickets £10 but full details are on the CPRW website. I would go but knowledge of what can and can’t grow on Welsh hillsides just below the snowline is minimal!