legumES: the research project that challenges the cultivation of legumes and the monitoring of their impact on the ecosystem

Friday, February 2, 2024 - 17:10

What if you grew pulses at home and thereby helped to achieve more sustainable food systems? What if wild legumes helped improve the impact of land use? These are provocations from the legumES project, a research and innovation project scientifically coordinated by Pietro Iannetta, from the James Hutton Institute, through his joint appointment as Assistant Professor at Universidade Católica Portuguesa and "Invited Senior Scientist" in the PlanTech Research Group of the Centre for Biotechnology and Fine Chemistry (CBQF), of Faculty of Biotechnology.

Pietro Ianneta explains that "the project does more than challenge how legumes are cultivated, but in fact how we monitor and response to the impacts of management (human behaviour), on the ecosystem - and in fact food systems in general since these ned to become better functioning than they currently are given the pressures of climate change, biodiversity loss, and erosion of good-food culture." The project, which has just started its research and innovation journey, has the main objective of validating the benefits of legumes for the ecosystem.

With a duration of four years, it has received funding of 6.2 million euros from the European Commission and the governments of Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It is being carried out by a multidisciplinary consortium of 22 partners from 12 EU countries, plus Switzerland and the UK. The partnership encompasses research and technology organisations, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, large companies and non-governmental organisations, and this complement reflects the multidimensional challenge posed.


The "ecosystem service benefits" of legumes

What are the "benefits of ecosystem services"? Refer to ecosystem-based functions which directly or indirectly help ensure the well-being of organisms, and so also the environment on which they depend. Such services or benefits include food, clean water, pollination of crop and wild species, plus aesthetic, and recreational values. Academics class these benefits into four broad types (provisioning, regulating, cultural, supporting). When quantifying or assessing and comparing ecosystem services the CICES (Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services; cices.eu) is used.

As such, quantifying and validating these benefits is extremely important given the existential threat posed by climate change and environmental degradation. In this context of "protecting life", legumes are an extremely important group of plants in natural and cultivated environments, but they remain underutilised throughout Europe.

To try to help boost the effective management of wild legumes and the utilisation of cultivated legumes, the legumES project adopts "cooperative research" and "knowledge co-creation" approaches - involving farmers, farm networks and land managers dealing with legumes in agricultural and natural environments. This co-operative partnership will help ensure that best practices for legume conservation and cultivation are identified, developed and adopted.

In addition, this approach also seeks to develop and integrate the use of new approaches and tools to quantify the benefits of legumes for the ecosystem. Since such methodologies and tools are also of interest to land managers and farmers, they also appeal to all actors in the value chain who seek to highlight their role in ensuring more sustainable and resilient ecosystems.


Very low level of legume cultivation and consumption in Europe

Pietro Iannetta, the project's coordinator, said that " across Europe, we face a situation where we must return to historic levels of legume cropping if we are to forward and address major challenges facing civilisation".

In many food cultures around the world, cultivated and wild legumes have historically provided nutrient-rich food as an important source of sustenance for humans and animals, and also contribute to ensuring the continued well-being of the land on which they grow. However, the level of legume cultivation and consumption in Europe remains far below the minimum thresholds needed to optimise sustainable production and to help meet recommended dietary guidelines.

While the production and consumption of foods based on legume grains may be increasing slowly, it is much less likely that these foods will be derived from legumes grown in or near the regions where they are consumed. The high dependence on imported legume grains means that the multi-environmental and socio-economic benefits of legumes are lost.

Marta Vasconcelos, a researcher at CBQF with an extensive CV in the field of legumes, added “support for more-sustainable agriculture is shifting towards a ‘public money for public goods’ model, which means ecosystem function benefits are sought. However, the exact extent of the potential benefits offered by legumes remains to be validated and quantified in social, environmental, as well as economic terms”. This is not a simple undertaking since the benefits are accrued and balanced across scales from field and farm to that of the regional and national levels, and so internationally. Therefore, the legumES project takes a ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ look at the options, from farmers and farm networks to business governance and government policies, respectively.


A meeting with more than 60 people from 12 countries

More than 60 people from 12 countries gathered at the Portuguese Catholic University in Porto to discuss legumES and plan the best way to test how home-grown legumes can help achieve more sustainable food systems and how wild legumes can help improve the impact of land uses.
In addition to the administrative planning for the 4-year project, workshops were held to determine the most important ecosystem services to focus on.

Pietro Iannetta explains that “Sustainability has become the language of modern marketing, and no more so for the plant-based and commonly legume-based food stuffs. However, it is important that we have the tools. methods, and people to valorise those claims. LegumES will help build the necessary communities and equip these communities to validate and balance the various benefits on offer on a 'one health approach - that is, optimised for you and the planet.”