Could hummus solve world hunger? This study examines chickpeas over meat as sustainable protein source and shows that they could in fact feed the world and eliminate hunger completely.

For many vegans, our love affair with the humble chickpea knows no bounds. Where would we be without our hummus, fresh falafel or chana masala? Chickpeas are an important and more sustainable source of protein for those who refuse to eat animals, but now a new study aims to show they could in fact feed the world and eliminate hunger completely.

Chickpeas are wondrous. Tasty, versatile, and nutrient-dense, these legumes have transcended their role as a staple of Middle Eastern and Indian cooking to gain superfood status in the west, with their popularity having rocketed in places like the US in the past decade. But while many of us may think of chickpeas as a good ingredient for a curry or, in the form of hummus, a nice snack, they are in fact “key to nutritional security”, and researchers are now discovering how they could become a solution for ending world hunger. Plant protein will become increasingly important as a way to feed a growing global population healthily and sustainably without relying on environmentally damaging animal protein.

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) have conducted genome sequencing on 200 chickpea plants in order to learn how different varieties of chickpeas can be improved to produce higher yields and help achieve “zero hunger” on Earth – the second of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “Chickpeas are one of the main protein sources for hundreds of millions of people - especially in South Asia, Africa and other parts of the world,” said Dr Bunyamin Tar’an, who was involved in the research. “The research provides an avenue to support global efforts to develop chickpeas with even better nutritional value as well as more climate-resilient varieties.”

The study, published in the journal Nature, notes that chickpeas are the third most-produced pulse in the world, but that globally the production of pulses has stagnated for the past fifty year contributing to the low “availability of these foods and high levels of malnutrition in developing countries.” By uncovering more genetic information about different kinds of chickpea, the researchers were able to suggest several approaches to breeding improved varieties. As climate change threatens one-third of global food production, so finding ways to increase the resilience and yields of crops with high nutritional value is crucial. And chickpeas really are a great source of nutrients; one study found that people who eat chickpeas and/or hummus “have higher nutrient intakes of dietary fibre, polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium, and iron” compared to people who don’t eat them.

A crop scientist in India has been conducting similar research into legumes, including chickpeas, to the researchers from USask. Professor Rajeev Varshney and his team have developed a drought-resistant variety of chickpea recently told Gulf News: “I wanted to explore the power of genome technology to create better crops in my country. Developing countries are severely impacted by climate change. Chickpeas have the potential to unlock prosperity for small-holder farmers.”

In Europe, researchers are also looking into making pasta out of chickpea flour instead of wheat as a way to improve people’s health and reduce harmful agricultural practices. Researcher Michael Williams from Trinity College Dublin said that the substitution is an “excellent example” of how to include legumes more readily into people’s diets. Though growing chickpeas uses up more land than growing durum wheat, Williams said that, “The higher protein content of chickpea pasta could also contribute towards wider environmental benefits if we were to substitute it for some of the animal protein that typically takes up too big a part of many Irish and European diets.”

Plant-based meat alternatives might increasingly be utilising chickpea protein too. In the last couple of years, a number of companies have begun developing textured chickpea protein that could, as Food Navigator put it, “rival soy, wheat and peas in the functionality and nutrition stakes, and could also simplify ingredients lists by removing the need to add methylcellulose,” which is used as a gelling and emulsifying agent and is common in plant-based meat products. With many people allergic to soy and wheat, diversifying the crops used in producing plant-based products is important.
The benefits of chickpeas go beyond their climate resilience and nutrition profile. Like several other legumes, as a crop they are actually good for the environment too. They fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing or eliminating the need for fertilisers, are resistant to pests, and do well without much water.

Chickpeas aren’t the only crops capable of delivering better health and environmental outcomes in various parts of the world. Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae, is packed with protein, delivering nearly three times as much as meat and fish by weight, and contains high amounts of B vitamins , vitamins E, K, C and A, among others. But as it lacks some amino acids, it has become important in places where other sources of protein are not as readily available. With a long history of use in South America and West Africa, it is now an important source of nutrients in countries including Kenya and Chad for communities who otherwise struggle to meet their nutritional needs. Meanwhile, agricultural researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are trying to re-popularise indigenous crops like sorghum and millet for their climate-resilience and nutritional benefits.

By 2050 there will likely be more than nine billion people on the planet. Plants, not animals, will be the way to ensure that none of those people goes hungry or is malnourished. Growing plants like nutrient-rich legumes uses many fewer resources, including land and water, while also contributing much less to climate change, which itself threatens food security. Chickpeas are often described as humble for being such an unassuming food with such widespread culinary impact. Who would have thought they could help save the world, too?

Original source: https://www.surgeactivism.org