With the United Nations declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses, we are taking a look at some key players in the pulse world and how their work brings some of your favorite beans to the table. To learn more visit iyp2016.org and Pulses.org.
Steve Beebe was burning out.
The year was 1976, and as a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, he was struggling to juggle the demands of classes and his research into root rot in beans*.
One afternoon Beebe decided that he had had enough.
Bean Program Leader, CIAT
He went to speak with his advisor, Fred Bliss, about dropping out.
Sensing a catastrophic decision on the verge of being made, Bliss advised him to take a year and do part of his dissertation work at CIAT in Colombia.
“He was interested in doing something to help make this a better world,” Bliss said. “I felt being at CIAT would be a good opportunity for Steve to experience international agriculture.”
Almost 40 years later, Dr. Beebe leads CIAT’s bean program, is instrumental in the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), has developed more than 40 varieties of improved beans that have been released in 15 countries, and was a key player in the creation of initiatives like HarvestPlus.
In fact, he can be credited with coining the term biofortification – widely used to describe the nutritional enhancement of beans and other crops through traditional breeding practices.
From his office at CIAT’s headquarters near Cali, Beebe described just how pivotal Bliss’s quick thinking and advice had been on his life.
Following their conversation, Beebe continued at the University of Wisconsin for about a year, before packing up and heading south to Colombia.
At that time, Colombia was hardly the place it is today. Calling home could take hours of working with operators to establish a telephone connection.
Meanwhile, narcotics and guerrilla groups threatened to destabilize the country.
Despite security concerns and a lack of home comforts, he continued working on his research into root rot resistance in beans, a particularly tricky area of research, according to experts.
He returned to Wisconsin for one final planting season in 1978 before graduating and returning to Colombia.
Finishing his thesis and getting back to Cali “was a welcome development,” he said.
Since then, he says, he has not been home for any significant amount of time. Instead, he’s been racking up achievement after achievement, creating positive impact in the lives of people across Latin American and the tropics worldwide.
In 1981, he was assigned to CIAT’s office in Guatemala.
At that time a disease known as bean golden yellow mosaic virus (BGYMV) was ravaging farms across Central America.
Young and hungry to make a difference, Beebe packed up and headed north.
At that time Guatemala was in the midst of civil war, which saw random and widespread violence breaking out across the country.
He recounted the story of being in a hotel room in Guatemala City, when a car bomb exploded across the street. The shock of the blast knocked his wife across the room, and shattered the windows in a nearby building.
Despite the risks, Beebe stuck to his work on BGYMV.
“It could induce total crop loss,” he said of the virus. “Especially in dry years.”
Over four years, Beebe made careful observations of which beans were able to resist the virus and which ones were falling victim to its effects.
Through careful breeding, he was able to harness the required traits for resistance to the disease and developed improved lines that were a lifeline for farmers in the region.
Those lines were so effective that the traits contained therein continue to factor into the beans being planted to this very day.
After early success breeding against the virus, Beebe returned to Colombia.
He set his mind to the particularly difficult task of breeding for tolerance to abiotic stresses – things like drought, high-heat, low soil nutrients, and the like.
In the decades since, Beebe and his team have developed and released dozens of bean varieties that can cope with harsh conditions.
A recent study showed that even small changes in temperature and rainfall (as is predicted to happen as a result of climate change) could substantially reduce the area suitable for growing traditional varieties of beans.
The study showed that up to 60% of areas currently growing beans in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to be unviable by the year 2100.
Percent of current bean farm land in sub-Saharan Africa that could be lost by the year 2100
Better beans are needed. And the roots of their creation can be found in CIAT’s Genetic Resources Unit.
“The most dramatic progress made in recent years in breeding common beans has been through the use of novel materials stored in the genebank,” he said.
Looking ahead, Beebe says that solutions for these future challenges may be found in five cultivated species currently archived there.
Last year, he was widely recognized in the press for the development of beans that could resist temperatures several degrees above their normal upper limit.
These “heat-beaters” and other improved varieties could be a boon for farmers who are at risk of rising temperatures due to climate change – especially in Africa.
But Beebe’s interests haven’t been limited to abiotic stresses.
In 1995, he travelled to Rwanda in the wake of the country’s genocide.
While there, he researched how the conflict affected farmers’ bean varieties, finding that many farmers took great strides to protect their favourites.
It was at this point in his career that he also took a keen interest in the idea of improving the nutritional quality of beans.
By selectively breeding beans that possess higher concentrations of key nutrients like iron, he believed that he could help address human nutritional deficiencies – like iron-deficiency anemia.
In the coming weeks, a paper detailing the effectiveness of biofortified beans from a human nutrition perspective will be published.
A microscopic image of human blood cells from the website of the National Cancer Institute. Blood iron helps facilitate the movement of oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
“Iron-deficiency is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world”, according to the World Health Organization.
Some 2 billion people (or about 30% of the world’s population) are anemic – many of which can be attributed to iron-deficiency.
According to the WHO, anemia can lead to a host of negative health effects, including poor pregnancy outcomes, increased risk of childhood morbidity, impaired development of physical and cognitive abilities, and reduced work productivity in adults.
While Steve cut his teeth in the bean fields of Latin America, his dedication to Africa cannot be overstated.
Having travelled extensively across the region, Beebe now plays an integral part in support of PABRA, the alliance of African research partners that has been essential in seeing improved beans get into the hands of the farmers who need them most.
In Uganda and Rwanda alone, adoption of improved varieties has seen an uptick of about 20% between 2004 and 2011. This has translated to 53% yield gains in Rwanda, and a roughly 60% improvement in productivity in Uganda.
Many of these varieties were developed by the bean team at CIAT, which Beebe leads.
Looking back on his career and when his advisor told him not to quit, he says, “I’m impressed how the direction of one’s life can be determined in a second.”
Looking ahead, Beebe is hoping to breed beans that combine the best traits from all of his breeding projects.
He foresees beans that are both more nutritious and capable of withstanding the worst biotic and abiotic stresses brought on by climate change.
As the effects of climate change threaten the food security of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, Beebe’s beans may just prove to be a lifeline that keeps future generations from going hungry.
As the effects of climate change threaten the food security of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, beans may prove to be a lifeline. But they go much further than that.
As Beebe’s work has shown, whether it’s improving nutrition or stimulating agriculture development, beans hold tremendous potential across the tropics.