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Beans Bred to Battle Heat, Climate Change

Mar 25, 2015 03:31 PM EDT
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The world is getting warmer, at least on a global scale, and that means increasing difficulties for farmers who grow temperamental crops like wheat and, surprisingly, even beans. Now new research has revealed that there are some beans that can take the heat, and new breeding programs may be launched to make them the new face of the "meat of the poor."

"This discovery could be a big boon for bean production because we are facing a dire situation where, by 2050, global warming could reduce areas suitable for growing beans by 50 percent," Steve Beebe, a senior researcher for the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), said in a recent statement.

Beebe recently shared the good news at a development conference organized by the German government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - a region whose agricultural economy heavily relies on vulnerable bean production.

He explained that what's most encouraging is that "the heat-tolerant beans we tested may be able to handle a worst-case scenario where the build-up of greenhouse gases causes the world to heat up by an average of 4 degrees Celsius (about 7.2 F)."

"Even if they can only handle a 3 degree rise, that would still limit the bean production area lost to climate change to about five percent," Beebe added. "And farmers could potentially make up for that by using these beans to expand their production of the crop in countries like Nicaragua and Malawi, where beans are essential to survival."

The threat of climate change on crops isn't exactly a new revelation. Nature World News has previously reported how shifting atmospheric patterns could bring more extreme weather, like harmful droughts or even flooding to unprepared farmland. Rising temperatures alone are expected to cut net wheat production by up to 25 percent! This is even as we continue to lose farmland to salinity in rain-starved nations. Worse still, experts agree that food production needs to grow about 60 percent by 2050 to meet the projected demand from an anticipated population of more than nine billion people. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : CIAT via CGIAR PR)

Beans, seen as "the meat of the poor" thanks to their high protein and iron content, were expected to help keep hungry nations healthy, but according to Beebe and his colleagues, we will simply wind up losing this valuable resource if farmers don't begin transitioning over to using what the researchers are calling "heat-beaters."

Some initial testing with one heat-beater in Costa Rica resulted in it yielding twice the amount of beans compared to what farmers were currently cultivating.

"What this shows us is that heat may already be hurting bean production in Central America far more than we thought and farmers could benefit from adopting the new heat-beater beans right now," Beebe said.

The new bean, which had been bred through a traditional "organic" approach, is a cross between the "common bean" (pinto, kidney, etc.) and the tepary bean.

The tepary - a hardy survivor cultivated in the dry climes of Mexico and southwest America since pre-Columbian times - had mostly been forgotten in the wake of large-scale agriculture, Beebe recently explained to BCC News.

This was largely because the beans were unusually small and their plants grew low and wide, taking up great swaths of field without additional production.

However, the plants were known to have some incredible drought tolerance (for a bean), and when CGIAR scientists determined through genetic analyses that they had heat-resistant traits as well, tepary beans could no longer be ignored.

"We confirmed that 30 heat-tolerant lines are productive even with night-time temperatures above 22 degrees Celsius (about 72 F)," Beebe added. "Normally, bean yields start to falter when the temperatures exceed 18 or 19 degrees Celsius (about 64 to 66 F)."

It's important to note that the identification of these "lines," as breeders call them, is for traditional plant breeding, not lab-side modification or even genetic editing. In this way, the heat-beaters avoid the GMO stigma even while offering a climate change-ready alternative for bean farmers.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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