As Europe experiences its worst-ever heatwave, the warm temperatures are having collateral beneficial effects in the Belgian farm Peas & Beans, where chickpeas – a Mediterranean-weather crop- are grown.
This pulse is not adapted to cold and wet weather, but the trend of more sunny periods are facilitating the growth of crops which before were unthinkable to harvest in the North or Central Europe. Thomas Truyen, a hobby farmer, who primarily works as a marketer in the seed business industry, planted chickpeas in just one acre of his family farm in 2020: “I wanted to be agile for the future, as climate change is making our spring and summer more dry,” he said.
Putting the right climate price
According to a recent report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), plant based food is the highest-impact investment for cutting carbon emission of any sector, as it has the highest CO2 equivalent savings per dollar of invested capital in any sector. In Belgium, companies such as Greeenway, De Hobbit, and La Vie Est Belle are paving the way for new plant-based products based on pulses such as soy, chickpeas or other beans and pulses. But an increased production of raw material in the country should be envisioned too, if the environmental footprint of plant-based food should bebe kept low.
At the Flemish regional level, initiatives that aim to accelerate the shift to plant-based food are being taken. In 2021, Flanders Minister of Agriculture and Food Hilde Crevits launched a regional protein strategy 2030 aiming to increase production of more plant-based and alternative protein on Flemish land, leading to crop diversification. The plan seeks as well to encourage agricultural innovation: lupine, lentils and chickpeas are not yet grown on a scaled-up basis, but research to understand which plant could potentially thrive in the Flemish climate is underway. Truyen’s farm participates in two of the 19 projects funded by the government, where farmers, scientists, processing companies and supermarkets are joining forces to investigate the potential of local chickpeas consumption and how to optimize chickpea cultivation.
In a couple of weeks Truyen is set to harvest his organic chickpeas for the third year in a row. His harvest will help further with investigating the possibility to scale up the production across the country: “What we want to reach it’s to build data on the average yield,” says Truyen “Then in a long run it would be possible to calculate what costs are involved and which would be the right price for Belgian chickpeas for other farmers to consider whether it would fit for them to cultivate this crop”.
Ultra sustainable but still risky
Chickpeas sowing and harvest happen between March and September, when temperature can get slightly close to the ones in the Mediterranean region. The chickpea variety utilized is however the same currently used in some farms in France, which can better confront colder and milder weather.
Truyen devoted one acre to its chickpeas, whereas in his farm, he grows crops such as potatoes and wheat which he now makes them rotates together with chickpeas. One of the secrets of this crop is however its extraordinary ability to mitigate climate change. The specificity of this plant is that it can grow in very unfertile soil while limiting the nitrogen emission in the air, a by-product specific to some agricultural activities. In fact, the pulse feeds itself with nitrogen particles emitted, facilitating the reduction of this gas in the atmosphere.
Nitrogen is a substance that can be also found in fertilizers, which farmers do not need to use as the plant can absorb it through the air, reducing purchasing costs that, due to today’s high energy prices have brought fertilizers to be a heavy expense on farmers’ budgets.
Furthermore, his organic farm employs nature-friendly farming techniques, such as avoiding the use of pesticides, which is now bringing pollinators back to its land. Although he needs to pluck out himself weed that grows side by side with his chickpea plants, he prefers it this way. A recent study found that these practices do not reduce crop productivity, while fostering positive effects on the environment.
During its first year in 2020, the farm Peas & Beans collected 3 tonnes of this pulse, showing there was a future for this crop in the country. In 2021, however, the severe rains that caused catastrophic floods in Europe, damaged his land too, making it impossible to harvest anything more than 1 kg: “Climate change does not only mean higher temperatures, but especially extreme weather events,” he regretted. At the moment he doubts many other farmers will follow his steps: “Changing crop overnight is risky, it’s good that they don’t go blind into this business, in agriculture, everything is a trial and you need to wait at least 10 years to make predictions,” he says hoping that with its third harvest he will be able to build data collection further in a positive direction.
The making of a supply chain
One of the scopes of the projects Peas & Beans is participating in is to close the gap between farmers and consumers. Belgian cuisine rarely has pulses within its ingredients and its population is not used to adding them in their meals. Truyen said he ‘had some work to do’ in order to sell his first harvest as no supply chain for chickpeas existed yet. But as his primary job is to work in marketing, it did not take him so long to establishing his chain: “In a way I had the dream to create my own chainand to so do I needed a very popular crop and chickpeas seemed to be the perfect product,” he continued, as the popularity of plant-based alternative have been growing especially among the younger generations. Nowadays, he mainly supply the Brussels based Middle Easter inspired eatery Pois Chiche, and the World acclaimed vegan restaurant Humus & Hortense, Peas & Beans also supply bulk grocery shops. Now, together with his project partner he is trying to hestimate how to create a supply chain for this new potential Belgian produce: “In the future we will need for example,factories that could clean chickpeas after the harvest,” he noted.