DINING on lupins washed down with gin or beer made from peas could enable Scots to help save the planet, scientists say.

Returning to traditional Scottish ways of growing food would also cut carbon emissions from fertilisers, according to researchers in Dundee.

The spotlight was shone on the use of climate-damaging, synthetic nitrogen fertilisers when a major American company stopped production in the UK last week because of the rocketing price of energy.

Westminster has since offered what is believed to be a multi-million-pound incentive to CF Fertilise to resume production, but the crisis has driven home the need to look at alternatives to synthetic fertilisers.

Their use could be cut drastically if more peas and beans were grown in Scotland, particularly if cropped the traditional way using mixed crops in the same field, according to Dr Pete Iannetta of the James Hutton Institute. Called “intercropping”, this usually involves growing legumes such as peas and beans together with cereals as part of a regular crop rotation – as they were traditionally grown.

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“If we went back to the old ways of doing things in Scotland, but with modern varieties and equipment, it would be beneficial,” he said.

Nitrogen to fertilise the cereals would come from the legumes, which need no nitrogen fertiliser as they acquire or “fix” it naturally from the air. Mixed with a cereal crop such as barley or wheat, they would help fertilise it, meaning the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser can be reduced considerably, and even avoided completely.

“This is significant, since much of the synthetic nitrogen fertiliser which is added to crops is lost to the environment and leads to water pollution and the production of greenhouse gases,” said Iannetta. “Overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser can also lead to soil degradation.”

However, despite the health and environmental benefits of growing and eating home-grown peas and beans, consumption has plummeted. Only 1-2% of the cropped area in Scotland is legumes, now grown mainly for animal feed.

“We should increase the legume crop area significantly and with relative ease in Scotland,” said Iannetta. “We are not eating enough legumes in this country, and if they are home-grown it means the benefits are realised at home.”

He said the market demand for home-grown legumes could be “huge” as they could be used for major Scottish food and drink industries such as distilling and brewing, as well as fish and animal farming.

THE James Hutton Institute in collaboration with Abertay University and Arbikie Distillery has already shown that distilling peas is possible, using pioneering methods that can help the drinks industry become more sustainable.

The first “climate positive” gin made from peas was produced at Arbikie Distillery in Angus recently after five years of research. It is “climate positive” as it saves more carbon dioxide than it creates because no synthetic fertilisers are used to grow the peas and the high-protein waste material from the pea distilling is used as animal feed, offsetting the need for imported protein.

Research has also been carried out into developing varieties of beans that will grow quicker in Scotland’s maritime climate, and scientists are experimenting with legume crops which are quite novel for Scotland, such as lupins. Their beans are a popular food in places such as Portugal and are now coming on stream in northern latitudes too, in places like Finland.

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“Although most people in the UK would probably think of lupins as a garden flower, there are food crop forms of lupin too and they have been a source of food for centuries,” said Iannetta (above).

“They were popular during Roman times and there are historic records reporting that the Romans invaded Britain munching lupins.”

Scots were not known for eating lupins, but other legumes were a big part of the diet until the introduction of modern industrialised food systems.

Currently, around two thirds of the crop rotations in Scotland is barley, grown to produce alcohol and animal feed.

“Very little of our crop rotation is for food, and the nature of our current crop rotations are not holistic,” said Iannetta.

“I would like to see intercropping, particularly with legumes, prioritised. If we can mix a legume that fixes its nitrogen from the air with a non-legume like a cereal, they can co-exist in the same field at the same time.”

Iannetta admitted this would present challenges for harvesting and sowing but said they were surmountable.

“This intercropping approach does require an investment in equipment and knowledge, but you don’t get something for nothing,” he said. “You can pursue the convenient option and keep damaging the environment, or you can do something a little less convenient and restore the environment.

“Animal and aquaculture feed production companies can use large quantities of home-grown legumes and I am sure farmers will confidently grow whatever the market demands,” said Iannetta. “Rather than getting distracted about reducing synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use, it is instead important to prepare that bit of the value chain outside the farm gate to start accepting legume and legume-based products. That’s why the James Hutton Institute has been innovating with progressive distilling and brewing industries and feed producers.

“Provenanced, home-grown products are also a great selling point and we should capitalise further on Scotland’s high food and drink standards. By doing so, we would not only be safeguarding the environment, but also our capacities for local

production, local processing, local employment and continued positive global impact.”