Growing plant protein in Wales: the opportunities for pulses

By Louise Davies

Louise photo

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!

soya beans David Burridge

Soya beans – David Burridge

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.