It’s worth investing in Canada’s healthy ‘pulses’

Peter Fricker
Vancouver Sun
January 29, 2013

It’s a fact few Canadians are aware of, yet it should stir the hearts of patriotic vegetarians and vegans throughout the land: When it comes to lentils, we’re No. 1.

We’re also tops in dried peas. And we’re right up there with the big boys when it comes to producing beans and chickpeas, too.

Collectively known as pulses, these crops have been a big agricultural success story for Canada in recent years. Our production of pulses has increased from about a million tonnes in the early 1990s to 5.7 million tonnes in 2010, a more than a fivefold increase that is meeting a growing global demand for protein. India is our biggest market. Yes, the land of dal depends on Canada for lentils.

These fun facts come from the website of Pulse Canada, a national association of pulse growers, processors and traders. It’s full of information designed to convince Canadians and consumers everywhere of the benefits of eating pulses. What’s striking about the association’s chief selling points for pulses is how they inversely reflect, almost exactly, the downsides of a much bigger Canadian agricultural product: meat.

Using the slogan “healthy people, healthy planet,” Pulse Canada’s marketing tells consumers:

“As a food ingredient, pulses have been shown to help prevent and combat chronic health issues. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity are all issues that are a top priority for the medical community. Pulses can play an important role in fighting these health challenges.”

Pulses just might save the world too. Turns out they’re one of the most environmentally friendly crops it’s possible to grow. According to Pulse Canada: “Pulses take less energy to grow than other crops, producing fewer greenhouse gases. Pulse crops are also one of the most environmentally friendly sources of protein, contributing to sustainable food production by protecting and improving soil and water resources.”

By contrast, the meat and livestock industry has been identified as a serious environmental threat because of its substantial contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and unsustainable use of water and other resources. As the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization puts it: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

There’s one other claim that pulse producers could make about their industry, but don’t: No animals have to suffer or be slaughtered during production. No pigs in crates, no cattle crammed into long-haul trucks, no shackled chickens getting their throats slit. Compared to meat, pulses are ethical ambrosia.

So if pulse production is such a boon to our health, our environment, our economy and animal welfare, one would think government – in the public interest – would be its biggest champion. There are some signs it’s willing to take steps in that direction. Last November, Agriculture Canada announced $615,000 in funding for research into the health and nutritional benefits of pulses and a further $195,000 to help increase exports.

But this doesn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the amount of public support received by the meat industry. For example, it recently emerged that XL Foods (the Alberta meat-packing plant at the centre of the largest meat recall in Canadian history) had received $15 million from the federal and Alberta governments since 2009.

Such support is common, as documented in a 2010 report by the George Morris Centre, an agriculture think-tank. It cites the federal $50-million Slaughter Improvement Program (created to strengthen the competitiveness of the red meat industry), and the $40-million Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA), which aims to “position the livestock and meat industry for success.” The report highlights ALMA’s $237,666 contribution to a meat processing plant owned by industry giant Cargill, while the company reported net earnings of US$898 million in the third quarter of 2010.

And let’s not forget the $826,000 that Agriculture Canada handed to an Ontario meat company to research a sausage that doesn’t burst open when cooked.

Some argue that all industries should stand on their own two feet. But if we’re going to spend public money to support food production, why not keep it to products that are healthy, good for the planet and animal friendly? It’s time Canada took pride in its pulses.