What kind of protein we eat has huge implications for our health — and well beyond.
Besides the health, ethical, or religious reasons why people choose to stop eating meat, the way animals are raised to be food has enormous impacts on land use, deforestation, and carbon emissions. And as the global population continues to grow, per-capita meat production to meet that demand is growing even faster.
In the last decade, alternative meat options, like Impossible and Beyond, rose as a potential solution, a product that can substitute for animal meat without the ethical and planetary penalties. But plant-based proteins have been hitting a wall: inflation, politicization of food, and supply-chain hurdles punctured the hype — at least for now.
However, there’s a simple way to provide plenty of protein that doesn’t require animals or plant-based startups: beans. Beans are high in protein, efficient to grow, and can even improve soil health. They cost less than conventional or new plant-based meats, and they’re increasingly getting attention among foodies.
As one global campaign to double bean consumption by 2028 frames it, the answer to the question of how we can get inexpensive protein without sacrificing animals or the planet is simple: “Beans is how.”
There’s just one problem: Beans and legumes suffer from a public relations problem in the US, where the average person eats only around 7.5 pounds of beans per year, compared to 12 pounds in the UK and as much as 130 pounds in countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Beans can make you gassy, there’s a cooking learning curve, and a socioeconomic stigma around them still lingers.
But if we’re serious about changing how we think about our agricultural resources, beans can be a champion for delicious, sustainable, and affordable protein.
“There’s a big move now to find replacements for protein in alternative meats, in lab-grown meat, and these companies are all thinking, ‘No one is ever going to give up their hamburger or their chicken nugget,’ and I think it’s a profound mistake,” says Ken Albala, author of Beans: A History. “It makes more sense to turn to beans as a protein alternative for a million reasons.”
The bountiful benefits of beans
The good thing about beans is that they’re a food that already exists with a long cultural history. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to get them in grocery stores or on restaurant menus. But the food system as it is now disproportionately favors the meat industry, which is difficult to regulate.
Raising cattle, pigs, and chickens uses 77 percent of the world’s agricultural land, while only providing 37 percent of the global protein supply, according to Our World in Data. For beans, the ratio is almost the inverse: Just 23 percent of land is used to grow plants for human consumption, from which the world gets 63 percent of its protein. The difference in efficiency is clear: Plants and in particular pulses (the dry seed of a legume), like beans and lentils, give you more protein while using less land.
Beans can help us make the most of our resources, says Paul Newnham, executive director of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 Advocacy Hub on ending world hunger. “It’s getting that understanding that yes, they are more affordable, but they’re also more valuable,” he added.
Efficiency is just one way beans edge out animals. Legumes — which include beans, peas, and lentils — also happen to have sustainability perks. Because bean plants can add nitrogen back into soil, they can help improve soil health, and this nitrogen acts like a natural fertilizer. When beans are grown in rotation with other crops such as wheat, or brassicas like cabbage or kale, they make such an impact on soil health that this can increase yields over time, Margie Lund, a vegetable specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, told me.
The USDA’s crop production report notes that even though the area in the US planted with beans shrank by 10 percent from 2021 to 2022, yield increased by 23 percent, showing their productivity. With farmers getting more food with less land, beans can effectively be grown to feed people, with benefits to other crops too.
“Rotating your crops in general helps with disease management and fertility management,” said Lund.
Another plus to this pulse: A handful of beans packs a protein punch. If you eat a cup of beans, that averages at around 15 grams of protein, or 30 percent of the recommended daily amount. Soybeans are at the top of the protein leaderboard for legumes, getting you to 63 percent of your daily value of protein (31.3 grams) if you eat a cup.
Soy vey! The cows are eating all the edamame
Producers have been growing soy in great quantities in the US since the 1960s. However, according to Our World in Data, three-quarters of soy globally is fed to livestock animals, with only 7 percent of soy going directly to human consumption in the form of tofu, edamame, and as a filler ingredient in processed foods. (All this said, soybeans are legumes, but they are not pulses like beans, lentils, and peas because soybeans are oilseeds and have a much higher fat content.)
That most of our soy is fed to animals instead of humans creates “opportunity food loss,” which means if you give a cow some soybeans most of the protein, up to 96 percent, is lost before it gets to people’s forks. The cow metabolizes, ahem, poops out most of the protein. Thought of in terms of land use, for the amount of land used to get four grams of beef protein, you could get 100 grams of plant protein instead.
On a global scale, that’s a lot of land and protein we are losing from not just eating plants from the get-go. And as the world’s population is set to increase, it seems pretty unwise to be so wasteful, or to further drive a wedge in who has access to food security.
What’s holding back beans?
Beans have historically fed communities across the world and remain popular staples in many cuisines today, but they have to overcome a bit of a PR problem. People may not know how to cook dried beans, and they might feel that reaching for canned beans is a culinary no-go, the last resort in a pantry. But beans are ready for their glow up and to take center stage as the hero of a dish — as history has shown they can.
Beans have been staple crops around the world. Fava beans are native to the old world and were cultivated widely. In Egypt, slow-cooked fava beans on bread compose the national dish of ful medames, a recipe so ancient it is recorded in hieroglyphs, writes Albala in Beans: a History. On the other hand, phaseolus beans like black, pinto, navy, cranberry, and the Great Northern are native to the Americas, where they make up one-third of the Indigenous “Three Sisters” dynamic of corn, beans, squash — or “milpa” in Latin America. Eaten together, they form a complete nutritional package of complex carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins. Grown together, the corn stalks give the beans something to climb on, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil, and the squash provides cover.
Within the US, beans are eaten in a myriad of ways reflecting culture, history, and preference. Sandra Gutierrez, author of Beans and Field Peas, says, “there are thousands of beans that got lost through the shifting of cultures, but also through the agricultural control of companies that were not necessarily interested in the maintenance and in salvaging heirloom beans, but were actually just interested in making money with the beans that produce the most.”
Yield versus variety is a common trade-off in crop growing. Not only that, Gutierrez adds, “I feel that ownership of seeds — the idea that a company can come and all of a sudden own a seed and decide who can grow it and who can’t grow it — is insulting, and historically it is exploitative.”
Up until the 1980s, most seeds were in the public domain, but changes in intellectual property law made it easier for large companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Corteva, DuPont, and Syngenta to develop and patent new seeds. The consequences of seed ownership are significant: it can cost twice as much to buy these seeds, and companies can sue farmers if they grow proprietary crops (even if it’s accidental through pollination). Farmers interested in developing their own seeds have begun to create open source seed programs to collect varieties that are free of the limits of intellectual property.
Soybeans are subsidized commodity crops, meaning the government gives direct payments, crop insurance, and disaster assistance to farmers growing soy. The US Farm Bill aims for crop subsidies to create a more resilient food system by supporting farmers in buying equipment, seeds, and fertilizer.
But in a 2022 analysis on the effects of subsidies on vegetable eating, the Washington Post’s Tamar Haspel notes that farm subsidies will do little to affect consumer habits. She instead suggests that consumer-side subsidies to programs like SNAP will have the most effect on people eating more vegetables, including beans. However, this brings us back to the crux of it: for beans to be the future of protein, they need to be for everyone across social classes and cultures.
Beans have long been charged with a stigma around their association with poverty and struggle, as a pantry item that people rush to buy to get through hard times. Sales of Goya beans shot up 400 percent during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Here in the US, I think first of all, the economy is going to force people to eat more beans as meat becomes more expensive as inflation continues to climb,” Gutierrez said.
The price you pay for beans greatly depends on how high-end you want to be. A 16-ounce bag of dried black beans from Goya comes to $2.29 on FreshDirect, whereas heirloom varieties like the sold-out “San Franciscano bean” are $7.25 a pound on the Rancho Gordo website. “They just happen to both be beans, but for completely different audiences. It would be very interesting if they merged, if you could sell a really cheap, dry bean that was good and easy,” Albala said.
Once people can be encouraged to buy beans, the next step is teaching them how to cook them. Beans can come across as intimidating, with home chefs unsure if they should soak their dry beans or not. Gutierrez insists that soaking beans is unnecessary and that an instant pot or pressure cooker is a good option for reducing the amount of time it takes to cook dried beans. On the other hand, it doesn’t get much more convenient than canned beans.
There is a lot of untapped potential in the canned bean, argues Albala, recalling a conversation with Bush’s Baked Beans, which has a few offerings with flavors like “Southwest Zest,” and “Chili Magic,” bringing to mind barbecues, and the original “Baked Beans,” and “Grillin’ Beans,” doused in sugary sauces. “I was like, why don’t you try a different species of bean? Do an Indian dal, do a Swedish brown bean, do an African bean?”
Taking the initiative to boost beans’ public image, the global campaign “Beans is How” is aiming to double bean consumption by 2028 to help achieve food security while advancing sustainable agriculture. Paul Newnham, who also works with the campaign, describes his vision for the next 10 years as “a world where everyone’s getting beans two or three times a day that are appropriate to their part of the world, and that’s having a major impact on the quality of the soil and the environment that we grow food in, and also our own health and diet.”
Other bean fans include the United Nations Food and Agriculture Office, which declared February 10 World Pulses Day, and the “Bean Deal,” a group in the Netherlands which aims to create plant protein self-sufficiency by highlighting the agricultural value of nitrogen-fixing legumes.
As for the matter of flatulence, that will go away the more beans you eat.
Correction, May 15, 1:30 pm ET: This story has been changed to reflect the correct name of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 Advocacy Hub.
Correction, May 17, 1:15 pm ET: This story has been changed to say that beans are not a title 1 commodity crop (soybeans and lentils and peas are) and therefore not subsidized, but like most other vegetables and crops, dry beans receive yield protection under the crop insurance program.