The art of bean breeding (Part 3)
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.
In Part 1 and Part 2, we explored how even in the earliest bean cultivations, farmers were plant breeders– selecting for traits that would boost productivity of future crops and produce beans that would cook up well. In Part 3, we’re demystifying the often misunderstood concept of bean breeding, its important role today, and how it has shaped the availability of beans at the grocery store.
To start, what exactly is breeding?
Breeding is a natural process in which researchers cross pollinate different varieties of plants in field trials in an effort to create a high-performing plant that has the best traits of each of the parents. Breeding work happens in a number of environments: Land Grant Universities, USDA research stations, seed companies, NGOs, and farms. Breeders choose the best offspring from parents to produce the next generation. Through this process, they are selecting for desired traits like enhanced yield, resistance to diseases, uptake of nutrients in the soil, water needs, and adaptation to local growing conditions.
A breeder carefully places the pollen from one plant into the flower of another plant.
That process takes time: it’s tedious and can take more than a decade. In other words, producing the quality beans that end up in our meals at home or at our favorite restaurants is a long, arduous process.
A common point of confusion among consumers is: how does traditional breeding differ from GMO technology? The truth is these worlds could not be more different. A GMO, or genetically modified organism, has been modified in a laboratory where researchers create combinations of plant, animal, bacterial or virus genes.
But here’s where it gets complicated. Over the last century, the bean industry became largely commodified. Breeding efforts have mostly focused on traits ideal for production at scale. The manufacturing of canned beans in the US and around the world has also influenced breeding programs– encouraging prioritization of not only performance in the field, but traits like size, shape, and color when processed. As a result, a select number of varieties like pinto, great northern, navy, kidney, and black beans became famous on the world stage, readily available at every grocery store. And in some cases, culinary traits important to the home cook got lost in the process.
Of course, not all breeding efforts are directed towards commodity beans. We’ve built relationships with breeders who are tapping into the genetic diversity of beans from around the world. They’re working on prioritizing traits that align with what’s important today: adaptation to the changing climate, nutritional qualities, ease of cooking, soil-enhancing properties, and suitability for ecological farming systems. Some breeders are even improving yields of familiar heirloom beans that are known for flavor in order to make these beans more cost-effective for farmers to grow.
Bean breeding work, whether being done by expert breeders or by farmers or gardeners around the world, will continue to be important for the evolution of beans over time. These efforts are collectively building up resilience and diversity into crops– critical for addressing climate change and food insecurity challenges globally. And, ultimately, it means high quality beans in the hands of home cooks.
Stay tuned for Part 4, where we’ll dive into the intersection of heirloom beans and bean breeding technology, and the role we’re playing to connect breeders, farmers, and home cooks.