Small but mighty: Beans’ treasured role in agriculture (Part 1)
At Primary Beans, we’re focused on connecting home cooks to delicious beans grown with climate-friendly practices. In honor of Earth Month, we’ve created a special 4-part series that takes you deep into the world of beans. Together, we’ll explore beans’ treasured role in agriculture, the allure of heirloom beans, and the art of bean breeding. And finally, we’ll share how we’re playing a role in creating a feedback loop between breeders and home cooks, to celebrate the types of beans that are good for you and the planet.
The humble bean has been fundamental to meeting agricultural, nutritional, and cultural needs of the societies that have grown them for thousands of years. To celebrate Earth Month, we’re giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of beans so the next time you shop for beans on a grocery run or while shopping online, you know exactly where they came from :)
Let’s start at the very beginning. Most modern bean varieties are all members of a single species: the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). The common bean is one the earliest and most important plant species. It’s native to Mesoamerica and the Andes and– along with its cousins (scarlet runner, tepary, and lima)– has been fundamental to agriculture all over the world.
As nitrogen-fixing legumes, bean plants uniquely return nitrogen to the soil and need less fertilizer as they grow– all made possible by tiny root nodules and specialized bacteria. Plants need nitrogen to thrive and before the invention of synthetic fertilizers, nitrogen fixation was how farms returned this nutrient to the soil after other crops depleted it. This is best illustrated in the famous “three sisters,” or milpa system– still used by farms in Central and South America today. In this famous companion planting technique, corn, beans, and squash are grown together on one plot to produce more bountiful harvests than if each were planted separately.
Beans are complementary to many other crops as well, and today’s farmers frequently grow them in rotation with crops like tomatoes, grains, sunflower, and other vegetables. The benefits of crop rotations are endless: they boost soil health, create a diverse landscape for animals and insects, and improve natural disease resistance.
With each year’s crop, farmers around the world selected the best performing beans when it came to yields, appearance, cooking traits, and other characteristics. They saved these beans– which are seeds themselves– and replanted them from year-to-year, slowly altering the genetic makeup over time. The variation in all of the beans we see today is effectively the result of many generations of human selection and environmental adaptation, and a complex system of trade routes.
As they made their way around the world, beans became a key source of protein, fiber, and nutrients for hundreds of millions of people. They’ve helped shape cuisines and culinary traditions. Essentially every country has a celebrated bean dish: pasta e fagioli in Italy, frijoles negros in Cuba, rajma chawal in Northern India, hummus in the Middle East, red red in Ghana, feijoada in Brazil, cassoulet in France, the list goes on.
As a brand focused on beans, we couldn’t be more excited that we get to spotlight the world’s longstanding way with beans, and champion all the good they create from a culinary and planetary perspective.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series, where we’ll dive deeper into the world of heirloom beans (hint: they’re not what you might think).