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Fighting Food Insecurity By Building Better Beans

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As climate change threatens global food security, researchers at Michigan State University are building better beans crucial to human nutrition by tapping into the genetics of the more heat-resistant tepary bean.

The tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius A. Gray) is a sister of the common bean which includes kidney, pinto and navy beans. “The common bean is the number one source of protein and nutrients for many people living in Central America and Africa,” said Robin Buell, a professor of plant biology in MSU’s College of Natural Science and former director of the Plant Resilience Institute.

Her research on bean genetics was published in Nature Communications.

“Mother nature has already made plants that are adapted to different climates,” said Buell, who is also a faculty member with MSU’s AgBioResearch. We can use that knowledge to adapt our modern agriculture; we don’t need to reinvent it. “As climate change heats up the air and land, making them hotter and dryer, warmer nighttime temperatures make it more difficult to grow beans. To identify the genes that support bean growth in the desert, Buell and her team sequenced the genome of the tepary bean.

“The tepary bean has evolved over time to grow in the Sonoran Desert,” Buell said. “We could lay the genomes for both types of beans next to each other and compare them. If we know this gene on the tepary genome protects it from heat, then, we can add the gene to the common bean.”

There are genes from the common bean that are being introduced into the tepary bean to make it easier to grow and there are genes from the tepary bean that are being introduced into the common bean to make it more heat and pest resistant.

“The goal is to grow a bean that gives a good yield, grows in dry, hot climates and is nutritious.” Buell said. “We want to create an accelerated path to breed better tepary and common beans.”

Michigan is the number two bean producer in the nation. For over 40 years, MSU has been a leader in bean breeding and with help from MSU’s expertise in plant resilience, a research partnership was formed over the tepary bean.

One thought on “Fighting Food Insecurity By Building Better Beans

  • May 17, 2021 at 1:54 pm
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    Agriculture adds up to thirty percent of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So the type of farming we do, and the particular diet we eat, will play a huge role in determining our attempt to mitigate climate change over the course of the next eighty years. However, the wealthier a country becomes, the higher on the food chain its citizens want to eat. As GDP per capita grows, the more animal protein is consumed. But growing grain for animal production is highly wasteful of soil, water, and energy resources. Currently, America’s breadbasket, which greatly overrides the Great Plains Aquifer (also known as the Ogallala) is being depleted at alarming rates. Further east, into Iowa, Illinois Indiana and Ohio, soy and corn contribute significant acreage to feeding cattle, hogs and chickens through a vast application of artificial fertilizers producing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases. As the climate warms, hot spells tend to increase placing great pressure on grain production across the entire planet. In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed so that it can be replaced by a soy monoculture to feed pigs and other farm animals. China, of course, is Brazil’s biggest customer. And the Chinese market for animal protein has now become almost as insatiable as the American and European one. But destroying rainforests and depleting underground water resources, to feed animals, is hardly the correct sustainable strategy to defeat imbalanced carbon-release. For human consumption, wheat is literally the most important crop we grow. And, we have already experienced the ravages of climate change on this most important crop. In 2010, Russia was devastated by an unprecedented heat wave that killed 56,000 of its citizens. Russian wheat is an important factor in global human food consumption. But the heat wave that ensued in 2010 cut Russian production of wheat by over 40 per cent. For its own domestic safety, Russia cut-off all its exports, sending the price of wheat skyrocketing. This climate induced price rise panicked the entire world. Immediately it dawned on the everyone that the unusual weather — that every area of the globe had been experiencing — could also play havoc with US production. If it ever came to the point that US wheat production would be cut by 40 per cent, it would literally create a world-wide famine. That’s how dependent the world has become on the American Midwest. And with the advent of climate change, the world began to worry about the fragility of the US breadbasket. So, in the aftermath of the Russian wheat disaster of 2010, farm land across the globe began to be bought up (in record amounts) by countries rich in oil and other minerals, but poor in wheat production. This 21st century land-grab has been a disaster for the poor subsistence farmers of the third world, especially in Africa. As small-holders get pushed off their land, Western-style wheat monocultures have replaced them. This has been a gold mine for the governments and their wealthy patrons of these third world countries. But it has also created social tension and geopolitical havoc as water is being diverted to supply foreigners with grain. So much of this food imbalance and strain could be relieved if only people in wealthier GDP countries ate less meat, and concentrated more on vegetable and legume-based diets. But to say such a thing, in the wealthy West, or now in the wealthier parts of Asia, for that matter, is tantamount to a kind of cultural heresy. But the future of the Great Plains Aquifer (and all the other aquifers world-wide), the crisis of the loss of US Midwest top soil, the erratic rain patterns caused by the increased evaporation inherent in global climate change, drought, fire, heat waves, and a multitude of other negative environmental factors associated with climate change — all together means that our agriculture and land use policies must change. That is, if we want to prevent future disasters. After all, we are what we eat. And if we continue to eat to high on the food chain — by the continuous expansion of vast monocultures, massive debt for giant mechanization, severe lack of land reform in order to put billions of small-holders back into production and the destruction of forests, wetlands, and other natural carbon-capturing habitats — it will be impossible to solve a large element of the climate change puzzle. The human food chain is only as strong as its inputs. If the soil is depleted, or the weather is altered, the chain becomes ever more fragile. And our 21st century technology has rendered so much of human civilization, fragile. If we do not change, it will only get worse. Agriculture must be vital if it is to survive. Vitality and health are the opposite of fragility and sickness. To heal the land, is to heal ourselves.

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