Even before Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of red-lentil pottage, legumes - plants of the pea family - have provided important staple foods in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, legumes are the basic ingredients of such staff-of-life dishes as the Egyptian laborer's breakfast dish of ful mudammas, the Yemeni farmer's bowl of shurbat adas, the Syrian city-dweller's scoop of hummus bi tahinah, and the Turkish movie-goer's bag of toasted leblebi.
Of the more than 14,000 species of legumes, including important fodder plants like alfalfa, three species account for two-thirds of the legumes produced today for human consumption in the Middle East and North Africa. They are faba beans (Vicia faba), lentils (Lens culinaris), and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum). Only cereal production surpasses "the big three" in the region's rainfed agriculture.
Legumes, also known as pulses, confer special dietary and agricultural benefits that make them particularly valuable. Nonetheless, modern agricultural research has long bypassed them in favor of breeding new types of wheat and other crops. Unimproved local varieties of legumes suffered from low yields and unstable harvests, and in recent times the farmers of the Middle East began to abandon them for more dependable crops that had profited from scientific improvement.
But now the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), headquartered in Aleppo, Syria, is attempting to reverse the outlook for legumes, as part of its mission to improve the region's production of basic food crops.
Agricultural scientists such as those at ICARDA use crop plants' genes - the blueprints of inherited traits - to produce better plants for farmers. They often utilize "landraces" of crops, the unimproved local strains that farmers have cultivated for centuries, as a starting point, identifying plants that show desirable characteristics, such as tallness, abundant pods, or resistance to some insect pest. Then, they cross different plants with each other to produce, over time, a new variety with all the desirable traits.
Local scientists from Morocco to Pakistan then test ICARDA crop lines under a wide array of local conditions, breeding for their particular environment. It is the task of national research and extension programs to refine the new crop lines - and ICARDA's new technologies - and disseminate them to farmers.
A prime reason legumes have played a vital role in the region's traditional farming systems is their ability to take nitrogen directly from the atmosphere and "fix" it in a form plants can use. Because legumes leave surplus nitrogen behind in the soil to nourish subsequent crops such as corn and wheat, they save the farmer the cost of artificial nitrogen fertilizer.
Once in the pot, legumes are rich in fiber and contain two to four times the protein of cereals - hence their nickname, "the poor man's meat." Legumes and cereals eaten together supply complementary amino acids - the building blocks of protein - thus providing better nourishment than if either type of food were eaten alone. Traditional diets the world over mix grains and pulses - rice and soy in Japan, corn and beans in Mexico, rice and lentils in the Middle Eastern dish mujaddarah.
Ancient sources confirm that the "big three" legumes, which were first domesticated in the Middle East, have been eaten for millennia. Faba beans, which originated in west or central Asia, are mentioned in Hittite texts and the Bible; Ramses II of ancient Egypt is known to have offered 11,998 jars of beans to the god of the Nile.
The dominant food legume in North Africa today, faba beans supply the main ingredient of ful mudammas, Egypt's national dish, which is also served with tomatoes, onion, olive oil, lemon, and hard-boiled eggs. Faba beans are also used in a Levantine salad and to "decorate" North African couscous - another nutritious grain-legume combination.
Through careful breeding, ICARDA is transforming the faba bean. The goal is a new plant variety that is easier to grow. Harvests from traditional varieties are undependable, partly because the plant relies on outside pollinators to fertilize it. "The population of pollinating insects, such as bees, can vary," says Dr. Mohan Saxena, head of ICARDA's food legume research, "and without insects, there may be no pod set." Faba bean lines were discovered that can naturally fertilize themselves - a characteristic that was bred into ICARDA's new plants. Other lines contributed genetic traits for stable - and higher - yields. "The new plant lines are being distributed to different countries to test under local conditions," Saxena says.
Tall, traditional faba beans also have an architectural fault: they tend to lodge, or fall over, in the field, making harvest difficult. In most of the region, the plants are cut or pulled out by hand. ICARDA's scientists are developing faba bean plants almost 50 percent shorter that stay erect. Unlike old types, the stalks of the new plants end in a flower. More of the plant's energy is thus channeled into developing seeds instead of unproductive foliage.
Other plants have been bred with an independent vascular supply - an individual nutritional pipeline - to each flower pod. "Normally, the supply to all the flowers is interconnected," says Saxena, "and older and younger flowers compete for the plant's nutrients. If each flower has its own supply, more pods will form, and they will mature more uniformly."
The acid test of a new plant line, of course, is performance in farmers' fields. ICARDA has joined with national scientists in the Nile Valley Project to improve faba bean production in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Profitably exported from the area in the early decades of this century, the crop must now be imported at twice the cost of local production. But the cooperating countries are beginning to reverse this trend: In Egypt's Mina Governorate, for instance, farmers have achieved 10- to 20-percent yield increases with new techniques and varieties. Project scientists also developed "Giza 402," the first commercial faba bean variety to resist the devastating parasitic weed Orobanche, which can wipe out entire fields. The new variety is now grown on about 4,000 hectares (15,000 acres) in Egypt.
In irrigation schemes in southern Sudan, where faba beans were traditionally not grown, "the project demonstrated that faba bean is the most profitable winter season crop available," says Saxena. "These schemes have a fallow or rest season which can be replaced by a legume. Faba beans used this way could provide a surplus for export and generate foreign exchange."
Lentils are just as venerable in the Middle East, which presently grows one-third of the world's crop. On land now submerged beneath Syria's Lake Assad, archaeologists found the oldest remains of lentils from about 8000 BC, while lentil paste was discovered in Egyptian tombs of Thebes that date from about 2300 BC. Lentils have long been a staple food especially for the poor: There is an ancient Greek saying about a nouveau riche gentleman who "doesn't like lentils anymore."
Today, virtually every region, every group in the Middle East seems to have its own characteristic recipe for lentil soup. Tess Mallos' Complete Middle East Cookbook includes a Levantine lentil soup with silverbeet, an Armenian soup based on lamb stock, a sour Cypriot version with vinegar, a highly-spiced Gulf recipe with tomatoes and limes, an Egyptian soup with chicken or meat stock, cumin, and lemon, and a Yemeni soup flavored with garlic, tomatoes, and coriander leaf. Lentils, along with chickpeas and lamb, are also added to harira, a North African stew, while Egyptian koushari, a traditional Coptic "fasting" dish for meatless meals, combines lentils, noodles, and rice.
"Mechanizing the lentil harvest, particularly the step of pulling plants from the ground by hand, is widely recognized as the crop's major problem," explains Dr. Willie Erskine, lentil breeder at ICARDA. "The lentil pods open up when they're left too long on the ground, so there's a 'time window' - about four to seven days - when the crop must be harvested, or lost." During this period, the scarcity and high cost of labor hit small farmers hardest.
Major lentil-growing countries recently sent 36 scientists to ICARDA for demonstrations of improved plants, growing techniques, and machinery. They saw new lentils more amenable to machine harvest - plants less prone to lodging, with pods that do not shatter in the field and lose their seeds before harvest. Ethiopia and Tunisia have released such varieties - derived from ICARDA lines - to their farmers for commercial growing, and Syria plans to do likewise.
Among new machines developed at ICARDA to suit local farmers' special needs is a lentil puller that ensures harvest of the plants' straw as well as the seeds. Lentil straw supplies nourishing feed for sheep, sometimes bringing the Middle Eastern farmer a greater profit than the seeds, especially in very dry seasons.
As for chickpeas, the oldest remains, from 7,500 years ago, were found near Burdur in western Turkey. An Egyptian papyrus text lists the seeds as 'falcon-face,' after their beaked shape. Crushed chickpeas, along with onion juice and honey, comprise an old aphrodisiac recipe recorded in Lorna Hawtin's Chickpea Cookbook. Boiled chickpeas were advertised on the streets of old Damascus with the reverent cry, "O you on the boil, seven servants have prepared you!" - underlining the care with which they were prepared (See Aramco World, September-October 1971).
Now accounting for the largest share of the region's legume production, chickpeas figure in some famous Middle Eastern dishes, particularly nutritious snacks. They are roasted and sold in nut shops, deep-fried with other vegetables in balls called falafal, or blended into hummus bi tahinah. In the Armenian Lenten dish topig, packets of an elaborate chickpea dough are stuffed with onions, spices and tahinah.
ICARDA concentrates on "kabuli" chickpeas - the large-seeded buff-colored types eaten in Arab countries and elsewhere – and has scored some dramatic advances. Studies showed that two obstacles - frost, and a fungal disease called Ascochyta blight - traditionally prevented farmers from planting in winter and kept yields low. They sowed the crop in spring to avoid the wet windy weather that fostered epidemics of the blight. But 15 new blight - and frost - resistant ICARDA varieties surmount these problems. Dr. K. B. Singh, a chickpea breeder at ICARDA, points out that the new chickpeas bred to be planted in winter yield up to twice as much as the old spring-sown types, because earlier sowing allows the plants to exploit the entire rainy season.
The future for legumes - and for the farmers who grow them in the Middle East - is clearly brighter than it was some 15 years ago, when only two scientists were conducting fulltime research on legumes in the entire region. Now, a research network spans the area, with ICARDA at the hub. More than 250 local scientists, trained in legume research at the Center, spearhead national programs that did not even exist a few years ago. Network members exchange visits and stay in touch through ICARDA's legume information services, including the technical newsletters Lens, on lentils, and Fabis, on faba beans.
Crop seeds, with their precious genetic variation, also flow through the research network's conduits. At its Aleppo research farm, ICARDA shelters a priceless stock of legume seeds, along with those of other important Middle Eastern and North African crops. The Center's expeditions have sought local races of crops from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Morocco. According to Saxena, ICARDA's holding of more than 3,000 types of faba beans and 5,800 lentil types are the world's largest collection; the Center's approximately 6,000 large-seeded chickpeas are duplicated at a sister center in India.
Much of this genetic heritage is "active" - that is, it is sent all over the region each year for use in breeding programs. Part of the collection is left sealed for breeders of the future, who will be able to draw upon it for legume genes that resist some insect or pest yet unknown - ensuring that crops with such ancient pedigrees will continue to provide harvests for the Middle East's - and the world's-burgeoning population.
Lynn Teo Sitnarski, a free-lance writer specializing in the Middle East, was ICARDA's staff science writer during her two-year residence in Aleppo.