Beans, Beans the Magical “Fruit”
Versión en Español aqui.
The humble subject of a common schoolyard rhyme, the common bean, otherwise known as Phaseolus vulgaris, is a highly variable species of bean found throughout the world. Considered a “grain legume” in the language of the CGIAR, common beans are an important staple food in many parts of the world and one of the mandate crops at CIAT. Comprised of approximately 25% protein, beans are an important source of vegetable-based protein, and also contain a number of other important nutrients such as fiber, potassium and magnesium. Beans are a critical source of protein and calories for many people in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, in particular for low-income populations.
As a staple food, however, beans are not without a set of challenges. Beans are susceptible to a variety of pests and diseases, depending on the regions in which they are grown. Likewise, beans are subject to suffer in conditions that are too dry or too hot. Of course, the changes in temperature and precipitation associated with near term climate variability and long term climate change interact with the various pests and diseases, creating even more uncertainty. Research has already suggested that, in Africa, climate change may make conditions less favorable for crops like beans and more favorable for other crops such as cassava. Anecdotal evidence in Central America has, likewise, suggested that farmers in certain areas may also be considering a shift in agricultural practices from beans to cassava.
Given the quality nutrition afforded by this magical fruit, yet its potential susceptibility to climate variability and long-term climate change, an important research question emerges: What characteristics of beans should we work to improve in order to help keep beans in pots and in bellies around the world? Recent research conducted by the Global Futures and Strategic Foresight team at CIAT has made an effort to answer this question.
The process of setting research priorities is a well-established tradition in the agricultural sciences. For many years decisions regarding agriculture research priorities were principally based on economic factors and what are referred to as “economic surplus” models. In this effort, however, in order to take a broad view of possible new priorities, we used an open and participatory approach. With climate change and sometimes radical climate variability, highly uncertain interactions between climate and factors such as pests and disease, and the increasingly complex and dynamic relationships between individual farmers and global markets, the problem of research prioritization is an increasingly “wicked” problem. One means by which to address wicked problems is to pool the knowledge and experience of many people with different backgrounds, different understandings, and different perspectives about the problem at hand.
In order to tackle this challenging problem, we used a strategy wherein multiple groups of experts were consulted to better understand various bean research priorities. The Global Futures team at CIAT first took a hard look at the literature on beans and then had numerous interactions with scientists and other experts in bean breeding, physiology, pest and disease management, value chains and more. Using these interactions, the team compiled a list of 97 potential research priorities for beans. This list was then presented to stakeholders throughout Latin America and Africa in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese using an on-line survey system and paper-based surveys. Over 120 experts answered the survey. The results of the stakeholder survey were then all translated to English and the ratings were analyzed and perspectives were consolidated.
In the end, several of the research priorities that rose to the top of the list such as drought tolerance, breeding for high yield, and improving production and distribution of seeds did not surprise many of the experts. However, due to the open and participatory approach used in this effort, a group of priorities related to more “social” themes (e.g., consumers’ acceptance) were commonly identified as some of the most important issues. Another interesting aspect was the regional variation in priorities. In the case of Latin America, participants indicated that the most important needs for research included improving the understanding of the management of the whiteflies, and breeding and selecting for traits such as heat tolerance. On the other hand, for Africa, experts suggested improving the understanding of the common bean market, in both the supply and the demand side, and the management of the Bean stem maggot (Ophiomyia sp), among the most important regional research priorities.
As the CIAT Global Futures and Strategic Foresight team continues to move forward, we will use the findings from the prioritization activity to evaluate the potential economic impact and contributions to improving food security that can come from the adoption of results from research and development activities associated with high priority themes. These results will be used internally to help develop strategic plans, and externally to help regional organizations and different countries prioritize areas for further research investment.
See our published paper on priorities for future bean research.
Written by Steven Prager and Jesús José Rodriguez de Luque. Dr. Steven D. Prager is a Senior Scientist in DAPA, the Decision and Policy Analysis research area of CIAT, and the leader of the CIAT Global Futures and Strategic Foresight team. Jesús José Rodriguez de Luque is a Research Associate in DAPA, and a member of the CIAT Global Futures and Strategic Foresight team.