Plant protein for a regenerative food system

The vital connection between legumes and soil health in our food system.
A photo showing burlap sacks of different lentils and legumes; image courtesy of nucicer

Healthy soil is the foundation of a healthy food system

Crop diversity and nitrogen-fixing power of legumes can make our soil even healthier. 

Soil is more than just dirt, minerals, or rocks. It’s a complex living ecosystem teeming with microbes, nutrients, and other organisms. Healthy soil contains everything necessary for plants to thrive. 

Shockingly, one-third of our planet’s soil is degraded and 90 percent of the Earth’s topsoil is likely to be at risk by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This greatly imperils our ability to feed ourselves in the future. Without well-functioning soil, growing crops will become much more challenging. 

Much of this soil loss is attributed to a confluence of factors including monocropping, tilling, heavy use of chemical inputs, and deforestation. To solve this challenge, we need to change the way we farm and explore multiple avenues to rehabilitate soil. 

The shift toward alternative proteins is an opportunity to rebuild our soil and prevent future loss and degradation 

Alternative protein manufacturers are utilizing a range of plant proteins to create delicious meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Our plant protein primer profiles many of these emerging plant sources and catalogs the many considerations for each – including protein concentration, functionality, and commercial stage. 

The growing universe of alternative protein product formulation is creating opportunities to introduce diverse crops – including legumes like chickpeas, mung beans, or soybeans – into crop rotations. Legumes are a critical part of our food system, both for the nutritional value they provide people and also for the benefits they bring to the soil. 

I recently spoke with Kathryn Cook, the founder and CEO of NuCicer, an organization focused on diversifying chickpea agriculture, about this, and she said: 

“Consuming alternative protein products that are made from chickpeas or other legumes is a vote for a more regenerative and sustainable farming system.” 

 Kathryn Cook, founder and CEO of NuCicer

This is because legumes contribute to soil health via nitrogen fixation. Bacteria that live in nodules along the plant’s roots can transform the nitrogen in the air into the organic form plants need to grow. Their ability to do this is why legumes are so rich in protein. Nitrogen fixation can also lessen reliance on chemical nitrogen fertilizers, which are one of the main sources of nitrogen pollution of surface and groundwater.

The growing library of ingredients used in alternative protein products can also contribute to overall crop diversity

According to the USDA, “diverse crop rotations provide more biodiversity, benefiting the soil food web, which in turn improves rainfall infiltration and nutrient cycling while reducing disease and pests.” Creating new and larger markets for underutilized legumes incentivizes farmers to plant diverse species of plants, improving soil health. 

Chickpeas are just one example of a crop that can contribute to a more regenerative food system. This mighty bean was one of the first crops to be domesticated in the fertile crescent of ancient Mesopotamia. Chickpeas continue to be an important crop in regions like India, Africa, and the Middle East. And they are poised to become even more critical to food and soil security as we face a future impacted by climate change. Chickpeas are both water-efficient and heat tolerant. These traits are increasingly important as temperatures rise and more pressure is placed on our water supplies. 

NuCicer is growing better chickpeas by leveraging a historic library of wild chickpeas to bring genetic diversity to current crop rotations. The chickpeas they are creating have higher protein content and can even be selected for their ability to fix nitrogen more efficiently. And a growing group of companies like Equinom, ChickP,  and InnovoPro are also focused on growing chickpeas or creating protein isolates for alternative protein products. 

Down the value chain, we’re starting to see chickpeas in a growing range of alternative protein products, from yogurt and eggs to chicken and tuna. As the universe of companies making products from chickpeas grows, there will be further opportunities for farmers to improve soil health and diversity using chickpea crops. 

Of course, nitrogen-fixing capabilities are not just limited to chickpeas. Soybeans, peas, mung beans, fava beans, and navy beans all fix nitrogen and also contribute to the diverse ecosystem we need to foster healthy soil. Every alternative protein product with these ingredients can help contribute to healthier soil and therefore a healthier food system. 

Plant-based burgers topped with arugula on a white stone counter


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Image courtesy of NuCicer