What traditionally ends up on German plates is often not the best choice. Neither for the eaters nor for the planet they live on. A different diet would be good for our health and would also be more resource-efficient, as the German Nutrition Society (DGE) recently found in its new recommendations for omnivores, i.e. people who do not eat a purely vegetarian or vegan diet.

To sum it up in one sentence: less meat and dairy products, salt, sugar and fat – but more fruit, vegetables, whole grain products, nuts and legumes.

When Germany’s most important association makes recommendations on nutrition, there are consequences. The quality standards in community facilities such as daycare centers, schools, hospitals and retirement homes are generally based on the DGE guidelines.

What is new is the recommendation to eat at least 125 grams of pulses per week, i.e. one portion. This sends an important signal. However, the DGE missed the great opportunity to recommend significantly more of them to omnivores and thus to a large part of the population living in Germany. Because pulses are both healthy and climate-friendly.

Beans, lentils & co. are real all-rounders

The legumes, also known as pulses, are one of the most species-rich plant families. In the narrower sense – for example in the food industry – this refers to grain legumes. These include all types of peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, lupins, and also peanuts.

Pulses are real energy bombs for our bodies. The amino acids they contain are the basic building blocks for proteins. Pulses are also cheap, rich in vitamins and fiber, and they keep you full for a long time. They can also influence our mood: pulses contain the amino acid L-tryptophan, which the body gradually converts into serotonin (and partly into melatonin). The hormone serotonin is considered to be mood-enhancing and calming.

But these benefits are not reflected in our diet. According to estimates by the Federal Agricultural Information Center (BZL), the current per capita consumption of pulses is a meager two kilograms per year. This means that the projected minimum amount of 6.5 kilograms per year recommended by the DGE is still a long way off. The Planetary Health Diet, a meal plan designed to protect the health of both people and the planet and developed by an international expert commission in 2019, even recommends eating 27 kilograms of pulses per year.

Why does the DGE not advocate pulses more strongly? One possible answer is that the professional association has, according to its own statement, also “taken into account the usual eating habits in Germany.”

The Spanish Food Authority has set the goal: one portion of pulses every day!

Most European countries are already further ahead than Germany when it comes to the weekly ration of pulses on the plate. Some examples: The Netherlands recommends adults two to three portions per week or 9.4 kilograms per year, Italy advises three portions or 23.4 kilograms per year; in Bulgaria 31 kilograms are recommended and in Spain even 35.3 kilograms. That corresponds to around four portions per week. The Spanish food authority has set the goal that legumes in one form or another should be on the table every day.

Plant-based all-rounders are making a comeback

Here in Germany, too, they have been an integral part of the cultivation plan of farms for centuries. Not only as a source of protein for humans and animals, but because they strengthen the soil and subsequent crops. The legume family of plants forms a symbiosis with nodule bacteria that bind nitrogen from the air in the roots and make it available to the plants. This improves soil quality and less or no synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is needed. This benefits the environment and the climate: nitrogen fertilizers pollute water with nitrates, and because their production uses large amounts of oil or gas, they drive global warming.

Growing legumes also requires less water, land and energy than growing meat products. This means that lentils are about 20 times less harmful to the climate than beef, according to the DGE.

The increasing availability of mineral fertilizers was – and is – one of the main reasons why farmers in Germany are relying less and less on pulses. They remain an integral part of crop rotations only in organic farming. Because these all-rounders offer even more advantages in addition to their nitrogen-supplying properties: fields with pulses attract bees, useful soil bacteria and earthworms. Lentils, lupins and other legumes thus strengthen biodiversity and thus also our livelihood in a sustainable manner.

Because of their deep roots, they improve soil structure; field beans and sweet lupins in particular can break up soil compaction. They also break infection chains in crop rotations and thus help to prevent resistance in pests and weeds.

However, pulses still play a much smaller role in Germany than corn or grain. There are many reasons for this: partly because there are no buyers willing to pay good prices for the products. In some cases, farmers complain about highly fluctuating yields when growing grain legumes. This could also be because agricultural knowledge has been lost and more suitable varieties have not yet been bred.

© The Len / stock.adobe.com (excerpt)

Nitrogen self-sufficient | Thanks to the nodule bacteria on their roots, legumes can bind nitrogen from the air.

Nevertheless, the all-rounders have been making a comeback in conventional farming for some time now. Climate-related weather extremes and the increasing resistance to pesticides as well as stricter legal requirements for plant protection and fertilization are leading to a gradual change in thinking. But this is by no means always about growing for the supermarket: legumes are extremely important for the nutrition of livestock. More rapeseed, peas, field beans, lupins and soy from domestic production are now making their way into the feed troughs. This should also make Germany less dependent on global supply bottlenecks.

The protein crop strategy is intended to massively promote cultivation

The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) is now supporting this through its so-called Protein Crop Strategy (EPS) with 8.6 million euros, three million euros more than in 2022. By 2030, the arable land for legumes is to be expanded to ten percent of Germany’s agricultural area – this corresponds to around 1.2 million hectares.

Around two thirds of the pulses grown could be available for animal feed and significantly reduce the amount of soya that is currently imported. At least that is what the ministry under Cem Özdemir (Greens) is planning. The rest could be used for human nutrition.

Recommendations alone are not enough. In order to stay within planetary boundaries, many things still need to be done: consumers need to learn about the benefits of pulses, retailers need to create more sales opportunities, farmers need to gain experience in growing them. The coming years will show whether pulses will regain their rightful place in the fields and in people’s diets.