Elisabeth Berlinghof is a gastronomic scientist working at various positions in the food system. Both in her studies and in her work, she deals with topics that are intended to make our food landscape more sustainable. With her commitment and knowledge she has been pioneering the topic of legumes for several years.
Please introduce yourself briefly. What is your background and what are you currently up to?
I am Elisabeth Berlinghof, my background is in gastronomic sciences. I am currently studying organic agriculture and food systems in my master’s degree at the Hochschule für nachhaltige Entwicklung Eberswalde. Besides that, I am a social media manager and a gardener at Tiny Farms in Brandenburg, Germany, and I am involved in various initiatives promoting legumes in our food culture.
You are considered an expert on pulses – how did that passion develop?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert, because for me the term implies an end to learning, yet I’m still full of curiosity. The world of pulses is so extensive, I don’t think I’ll ever be finished. The origin of my passion started in Italy, where pulses became a staple of my diet through our university canteen. Besides that, I came across them on a more theoretical level when dealing with subjects like history, nutritional sciences and in agroecosystem science. That of course piqued my curiosity.
Why are you such a fan of legumes?
Because they are a solution. I like De Shazer’s quote: “Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solution.” I once introduced the hashtag #legumesaretheanswer with a friend. We need many actors, approaches and solutions to create a food system change, but legumes and legume crops are a key element in this, answering multiple challenges simultaneously (keywords: resource efficiency, food sovereignty, ecosystem services, health and taste).
“We need many actors, approaches and solutions to create a food system change, but legumes and legume crops are a key element in this, answering multiple challenges simultaneously.”
Among other things, you are a gardener and social media manager at Tiny Farms. Why is the region Berlin/Brandeburg so important to you?
I am incredibly happy to be here because I can combine living in a city like Berlin with working in the countryside. So I have access to the incredible cultural food richness of Berlin, I am in the midst of several networks of great and dedicated people, and yet I can experience the seasons in their fullness and be outside. I really like the transformation of sitting on the train home full of dirt with a box of veggies and then going out for a great dinner in the evening freshly showered (if I still have the energy ;)).
What is the importance of collaboration with other businesses for you?
Cooperation is the key. For me that means knowledge sharing, mutual appreciation, sharing resources.
For which areas are legumes important? Where do you see their potential or in which areas should they receive more attention?
In organic agriculture, legumes – the plant family to which all pulses belong – are essential for nutrient supply within the framework of a crop rotation: whether via feeding to animals whose excretions end up back in the fields, or directly as an intercrop, in mixed cultivation, as undersowing, or in the form of plant residues that are incorporated again after the harvest. The acreage of so-called grain legumes, that end up on our plates, is still small in Germany. These are legumes whose dry seeds we eat ourselves. For me, they offer the perfect delicious, healthy, naturally durable and resource-saving basis of an every day diet. I can see them in canteens, in daily cuisine, in lunch counters, in bread and on bread,… here we need to build up knowledge along the value chain again.
“Cooperation is the key. For me that means knowledge sharing, mutual appreciation, sharing resources.”
What do you see as the advantage of legume cultivation over completely different approaches, such as precision farming, which pursues similar goals?
Here, I’m sure you’re alluding to the fact that we can save a lot of energy and CO₂ in growing a food crop if we reduce the use of mineral fertilizers: That’s a commonality between (sort of) precision farming and integrating legumes into crop rotations. I think there is a lot of potential in both approaches for a nutritional turnaround, but it depends on HOW they are used. I can also grow legumes using high levels of mineral nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides and in tight rotations, extract and deodorize their proteins, and offer them as a plant-based alternative in a highly processed product: I may still end up with a more resource-efficient product (because the “processing” by animals is omitted), but I have left many potentials untapped along the way (the flavor, the fiber, the secondary plant compounds, the plants’ own fixation of nitrogen and thus their own fertilizer production, the connection to farmer and variety). And I can use precision farming as a tool that makes the status quo of agriculture a little more resource efficient, where, for example, more data means less fertilizer is wasted because you know exactly when and where it’s needed. At the same time, I can still use tight crop rotations on huge fields to grow soybeans, which I then feed to animals for fattening. Both are undoubtedly improvements, but in my view they do little to change the status quo and are not radical enough for the challenges we face.
Why do legumes, despite their great advantages, enjoy little appreciation in Germany? Where can we start to change that and who do you think is responsible?
All players in the value chain are important. I think that after centuries of animal products being a rare luxury for the majority of the population, it is understandable that we have done everything we can to make them available to everyone at all times. In the process, legumes, which otherwise fed many, have been forgotten. Now we know the ecological disadvantages of producing and consuming so much animal products and have a new perspective on legumes. The challenge is to fill the research gaps that have been created around legumes in the process: I see the government and also players in the free economy as having a responsibility to invest in research and development here. But it is just as important that farmers and processors tag along. We need more exciting varieties as well as diverse and creative processing methods. A look around the world and at traditional food cultures offers an incredible amount of inspiration.
Can you tell us something about the protein gap? How does it relate to the climate crisis and where do you see solutions?
The protein gap describes the fact that we Europeans cover a large part of our protein needs through imports. The most typical example is the import of soy (also a legume) as animal feed. For cultivating soy, rainforest is cleared. So the land we use through our production and through our consumption often remains invisible. We feed an incredible amount of land to animals who process the proteins for us (using a lot of resources). This is because animals do not produce protein, they consume it and we take it back from them in the form of milk or meat. Legumes, on the other hand, produce (!) protein through their ability to bind nitrogen (component protein) from the air. Most of the nitrogen then ends up in the seed later.
The opportunities at the climate level are twofold:
First, based on the above explanation, legumes as food provide a much more resource-efficient protein than animal proteins (compared to the standard case of soy fed to animals: I’m a big fan of livestock when used smartly- on grasslands, in mob grazing, as part of agroforestry systems, syntropic land management, and limited in density to ecosystems…). This can be expressed at the level of CO₂, water, land use,… In addition, of course, there is the issue of climate justice, when we use much more resources than we are entitled to, taking away the livelihood of others. On the other hand, legumes within the crop rotation also provide a more resource-efficient fertilizer compared to mineral fertilizer (as mentioned, from the air). Thus, through their use, the energy costs of agricultural production can be contained. Furthermore, they can have positive effects on biodiversity (i.e. pollinators, soil life) and on soil health, which in turn may have a positive effect on soil CO₂ emissions (but this is still being researched).
“Farmers need reliable buyers and good prices to grow new (inherently risky) crops. Processors and consumers need the reliable availability of such varieties to bring recipes and products to market. Who starts? Preferably it is done collectively with shared risk.”
What are the most important issues that you think need to change in the coming years within the food, restaurant and agriculture industries and why?
Reduction of animal products to the ecological limits; establishment of direct producer-processor relationships that share the risk of experiments financed in solidarity – especially multiplication of arable structures (intercropping, agroforestry,…), minimizing energy use; biodiversity at the variety and conservation level; better producer prices; new digital technologies that meet ecological goals (i.e. harvesters for intercropping); systemic decisions (that think environment, health, resources and people along) – a new humility? …
How do you think collaboration between the food service, agriculture and food artisan sectors can be strengthened with respect to legumes?
More exciting varieties for human consumption on our fields (this needs collaboration, as change is a challenge in agriculture) and more knowledge about how to make pulses exciting in culinary terms – the world is full of inspiration! Legumes are in a vicious cycle that we need to break out of together: Farmers need reliable buyers and good prices to grow new (inherently risky) crops. Processors and consumers need the reliable availability of such varieties to bring recipes and products to market. Who starts? Preferably it is done collectively with shared risk.
Why are you part of Die Gemeinschaft and what do you wish for collaboration within the community?
Because I can feed my own inquisitiveness and curiosity and at the same time fall on curious ears for my own questions and thoughts. It is precisely the interface between agriculture and nutrition and enjoyment that interests me so much, and for this I am in the right place at Die Gemeinschaft e.V..