Why We Should Eat Baked Beans If We Want a Sustainable Food Future
“By replacing some of the animal protein in our diets with vegetable protein from pulses, the world's growing food requirements could be met."
Hodmedod in Suffolk are producers of British pulses. The farming company works closely with east England farmers to cultivate everything from Carlin peas to marrowfats to blue and yellow peas. Since 2014, they've also introduced a British quinoa, grown in the plains of Essex.
Founded in 2012, Hodmedod's main aim is to source and supply beans, grains, and pulses while supporting and developing local and sustainable food systems. In short, they're producing homegrown alternatives to imported, high-food mile products, which gives British farmers the chance to sell unusual crops.
MUNCHIES caught up with founder Nick Saltmarsh and to find out why British-grown pulses and grains are key to building a sustainable agricultural model that could feed the entire country.
MUNCHIES: Can you explain the concept of Hodmedod? Nick Saltmarsh: Hodmedod works with British farmers to offer British-grown pulses and grains. We started with pulses already in production in the UK but grown mainly for export or livestock feed. Now, we're expanding our range by trialing more unusual crops and exploring different uses for the products, like milling, roasting, and fermenting.
What was the "light bulb" moment for Hodmedod? After realizing that fava beans were widely grown in the UK but almost entirely absent from British shops and kitchens. We assumed they must just not taste very good. But when we tried using them to make our own falafels and hummus and realized how delicious and versatile they are.
And fava beans have been grown in the UK since the Iron Age, right? Why did they go out of fashion and how hard has it been to bring them back? We stopped eating fava beans when increasing wealth and agricultural development meant meat and dairy products were more widely available in greater abundance. Meat and dairy therefore replaced beans and peas as the main source of protein in our diets.
Only the very poor still had to eat bean to provide the protein they needed, so beans became stigmatized as the food of the poor—and so no one wanted to be seen eating them.
More recently, we started eating New World beans (kidney beans, borlotti beans, navy beans used for baked beans), which as exotic new introductions didn't have such a stigma attached. Bringing back a food that we've culturally almost entirely forgotten about is a hard and long process of steadily building awareness of what it is and how to use it.
And this process all started with the Great British Beans trial project, right? Yes. We set out to investigate whether people in and around Norwich would like to eat fava beans grown in the surrounding countryside. We bought half a tonne of beans destined for export and packed them up at the kitchen table with a link to a website with recipe ideas and a reply-paid postcard to people could let us know what they thought.
We distributed the trial packs of beans through community groups and local shops. The response was overwhelming. People really liked the beans and told us they would like to be able to buy and eat more.
How important is it to you that Hodmedod produce homemade alternatives to imported high food miles? That seems to be the cornerstone of your work. We aim to provide diverse food with provenance so that consumers know where their food comes from and how it's produced. This is a radical departure from global trade in commodity crops that is based on standardized products with no local distinctiveness. Provenance is clearer and more direct when foods are produced as locally as possible.
Simple steps like putting the name of the farmer and a picture of the plant that produces the crop on our packs help to break down the obscure barrier between production and consumption.
Your work with local farmers is pretty extensive. Tell us about some of the farmers you work with. Growing for us allows farmers to diversify the crops they grow, benefiting the farm and spreading the risk.
Professor Martin Wolfe [whose pioneering farm, Wakelyns Agroforestry, is part of the Organic Research Centre] has been an inspiration to us, through his radical approach to farming with increased diversity at every level—in and among crops, and on the wider farm. He also brings an awareness of the importance of the whole food system to his work.
Andrew Williams is growing organic quinoa for us at Home Farm Nacton in Suffolk and Tim Gawthroup grows red haricot beans for us in Hertfordshire, providing a market for a crop that he's been working on for years and loves to grow.
Mark Lea grows many of our organic peas on his farm in Shropshire and is also trying other potential crops on a small scale. He tells us that it means a lot to him to see his crops end up in packets of food with his name on, connecting him and his farm directly with the people that eat the food he grows.
How will farming have to change in order for our agricultural model to switch to a sustainable one to feed the country by 2050? Farming needs to become less dependent on inputs like agro-chemicals and artificial fertilizers. This is why we are working to develop organic production wherever possible, as a model of more sustainable farming. But the most important change is in our diets, replacing some of the animal protein that now dominates our diets with more vegetable protein.
And growing indigenous pulses is the key to that diet? Indigenous pulses provide a valuable source of nutrition, particularly protein, while also enriching the soils they grow in. They can therefore play a critical role in providing growing global food needs in a sustainable way.
By replacing some of the animal protein in our diets with vegetable protein from pulses, the world's growing food requirements could much more easily be met.
What other pulses are you currently working with? We hope to raise the profile of "Black Badger" Carlin peas as a traditional English pulse with a superb flavor. We also see lots of potential to increase quinoa production in Britain to meet British demand, especially as British wholegrain quinoa has a particularly good flavor and texture.
Do you think we'll all be eating pulses by 2050? Almost all of us already eat at least some pulses, if only baked beans or hummus. But interest in the wider and more exciting uses of pulses is growing, from Middle Eastern cuisine to pulse flours and roasted pulse snacks. I'm confident we will all eat more pulses as time goes on.
Thanks for talking to us, Nick.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.