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Legumes in Organic Agriculture: Embracing Tradition and Seizing Opportunities

Delve into the historical and nutritional significance of legumes in our agricultural heritage and discover their crucial role in modern organic farming practices.

by BioGrow

Legumes have always been at the heart of our farming tradition, playing a fundamental role in terms of nutrition. This role has become even more significant today, considering the ongoing scrutiny of excessive meat consumption and its derivatives. Legumes, with their high protein content, serve as an excellent meat substitute. In organic farming, the cultivation of legumes takes a prominent position for two reasons: their agronomic characteristics and the relative ease of cultivation. This makes them valuable even in a home garden intended for family consumption.

In this article, after studying the history and tradition of legumes, we will analyze the general aspects to keep in mind.

Origin and History of Legume Cultivation

Legumes are all native to countries in the Mediterranean basin and the nearby Middle East. An exception is made for beans and peanuts, which originate from the American continent. In their countries of origin, they have been cultivated for thousands of years. For instance, remains of peas have been found in Ukraine, dating back to 7,000 years BC. Also, lupins and lentils have been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.
Staying within the Egyptian culture, broad beans held strong mystical significance in the priestly caste, associated with the world of the dead and certain esoteric practices. The shape of the fruit, with the union of two cotyledons inside a single casing, evoked the concept of complementarity between external and hidden life, symbolizing continuity between life and death.

Legumes in Dietary Tradition

Sacks of legumesThanks to their valuable energetic value and their ability to be stored for an extended period after drying, legumes have always played a central role in human nutrition. Both the ancient peoples of pre-Columbian America and those of the Chinese Empire understood that a combination of legumes, cereals, and a few animal and vegetable fats was sufficient to ensure nutritional balance and compensate for the lack of meat in societies based on agricultural production and self-consumption. These peoples consumed legumes both fresh, raw, and cooked. The dried seeds were transformed into flours for various uses. For example, lentils are believed to have been the most widespread food among the poorest social classes in ancient Rome. They were consumed to such an extent that their importation from nearby Egypt was necessary. Moving forward in history, it is in the Middle Ages that legumes reached their peak popularity. With the advent of communal society and an urban class, their cultivation expanded, finding a place in markets. Until the 15th century in Europe, the most widespread legume was broad beans, owing to its high yield. Over time, beans from the American continent replaced broad beans. In the following centuries, legumes gradually lost their value, especially among the middle-bourgeois classes, remaining mostly confined to regional traditions.
It was only in the 1970s that legumes were rediscovered and once again valued, thanks to efforts to promote a diet low in animal fats and rich in fiber, carbohydrates, and vegetable proteins—essentially, the famous Mediterranean Diet.

List of Major Legumes

We have already extensively covered the cultivation of the most important legumes today:

Botanically, they belong to the Leguminosae family, further divided into different genera.
All these species share the presence of a pod (legume), the fruit of the plant. It consists of a carpel that encloses the seeds. In some species, the pod has constrictions that divide it into chambers. In such cases, the legume is called a lomentum, as in the case of peanuts. At full maturity, the pod opens at the two sutures, releasing the seeds.

Legumes in Organic Farming

BeansIt is thanks to the spread of organic farming that the cultivation of legumes returns to the forefront of agronomic practices today. This holds true even for home gardens. Regarding garden planning, we have emphasized the importance of crop rotations, where the intercalation of leguminous plants in rotation cycles fits perfectly. In organic farming, it is not possible to resort to fertilization with chemical products, and this is another aspect where legumes play a fundamental role. These plants have the ability to improve the soil and provide nourishment naturally.
In the roots of leguminous plants, there is a bacterium, namely Rhizobium leguminosarum. This naturally fixes atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, enriching it with nutrients available for subsequent crops. We have addressed this topic in-depth by discussing cover crops and natural fertilization of the garden.
Another advantage in legume cultivation is that the plants have low water requirements. This is because their root systems are deep, thanks to taproots. This way, the plants can satisfy their water needs on their own.
Seasonality in legume cultivation is also relevant. In Southern Italy, where the risk of frost is low, cultivation begins in autumn or early winter. In other regions, it starts in late winter or early spring, seasons when natural rains are sufficient.
Our advice, therefore, is to cultivate legumes in the home garden, especially after heavy summer crops (tomatoes and solanaceous plants, in general) that consume a lot of soil and deplete its nutrients.

Legumes in Modern Nutrition

The most commonly used legumes in our country for food purposes are, in order: beans, peas, broad beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Lupins are consumed less frequently, and grass peas are rare. They are used both fresh and dried, after cooking. This versatility makes them suitable for numerous preparations. In addition to those listed above, we must consider peanuts and soybeans. Due to their high lipid content, these two fruits are mostly used for oil production. Freshly consumed legumes have a high water content, categorizing them as vegetables. Dried legumes, on the other hand, are an excellent source of protein, containing more than twice the amount found in cereals. Another common characteristic of legumes is their high carbohydrate content, providing good energy. They are also low in fats, making them suitable for low-fat diets. Another valuable aspect is their fiber content, making them a satiating and health-beneficial food. Fiber helps prevent pathological conditions such as diverticulosis of the colon, constipation, overweight, coronary diseases, diabetes, and obesity. Legumes are among the plants richest in calcium and have a protein content comparable to that of meat. In terms of vitamins and minerals, they are generally rich in vitamin B1, iron, and potassium. However, a certain amount of these minerals is neutralized by the presence of phytates, substances that reduce their absorption. Another issue that can occur after excessive legume consumption is intestinal bloating. This problem is related to the presence of indigestible sugars such as raffinose, stachyose, and verbascose. These sugars reach the large intestine unchanged, where they are fermented (with some difficulty) by the bacterial flora. Meteorism is, for example, a consequence of this fermentation.

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