Black beans. Kidney beans. Pinto beans. Green beans. Across cultures, beans are such a staple of our diets that we mostly take them for granted. In the developing world, they are a main source of protein and food security for more than 400 million people. Yet despite the seeming diversity of the plant, we’re only beginning to tap the vast genetic diversity of more than 25,000 bean varieties.
That’s a good thing, because climate change is coming to destroy the old-fashioned beans we know and love. Recent projections have been unexpectedly dire, sending scientists on an urgent quest to develop better varieties of the crop. For example, in eastern and central Africa, the area suited for bean cultivation could shrink 50% by 2050. Because the crop evolved in hilly, cool areas in Latin American, it is particularly poorly adapted to higher temperatures. “Heat stress,” as researchers call it, could also cause serious problems in areas of Nicaragua, Haiti, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
At a conference in Ethiopia this week, a team of researchers will announce progress in saving this important crop: 30 new “heat beater” bean lines that are built to withstand the pressures of a warmer world. Testing reveals that these new beans can handle a worst-case-scenario temperature rise, where the world would heat an average of 4 degrees Celsius, and could even help expand the areas of the world where beans can be grown to countries like Nicaragua and Malawi.
“We’re pretty excited about not only protecting the bean area that we have, but going from defense to offense,” says Stephen Beebe, a senior researcher with CGIAR, a global food security and agricultural development research organization of about 10,000 scientists and staff at centers around the world. “The climatologists are saying that, if we have what we think we have, we could expand into some lower elevations where there’s no cultivation today.”
The work, which tapped CGIAR’s massive collection of seeds of some of humanity’s most important crops, shows how GMOs aren’t necessarily needed to create global-warming-adapted agriculture. Improvements in DNA sequencing have made it easier, faster, and cheaper for scientists to screen through these “genebanks” and find seed varieties with desirable traits for the future, like resistance to heat, disease, or drought. The new beans, which were created after screening 1,000 existing lines, are a cross between the common bean, a species that includes navy, black, pinto, kidney, and other beans, and the tepary bean, a dense, meaty bean from Mexico that’s adapted to desertlike conditions. Some have also been bred with higher iron content to tackle malnutrition in the developing world.
Before they get to your dinner plate, the beans would need to go through field trials in a variety of environments, and then be registered with governments around the world. They’d also probably undergo a few more taste tests. Even Beebe, a breeder with CGIAR’s bean improvement project since 1998, says he has not eaten them yet.
Though only a few years ago he was worried for the future of the bean, Beebe is now hopeful the crop–and many other crops, too–can be saved from the disaster of a warming climate (though he says good government policies are also required). “These genebanks have an awful lot of diversity that has not yet been explored,” he says. “Biology is remarkably resilient.”