Opinion: More R&D is needed for beans to reach their full potential

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As the weather gets milder and we start putting beans and spring peas into the ground, it’s worth thinking about why we export most of the pulses we produce in the UK, or simply infants for cattle.

Pulses are certainly a good breakout crop that offer a solid yield and are well adapted to Britain’s changing climate.

Their nitrogen-fixing and soil-fertility-enhancing properties allow the next crop to get off to the best possible start.

See also: Farmers join forces to grow high-yielding, low-cost spring beans

About the Author

Daniel Kindred is the lead Adass scientist at the Bean Yield Enhancement Network. Here he explains why more effort is needed to develop an internal market for human consumption.

They also provide a range of environmental benefits, including reducing artificial nitrogen requirements for subsequent crops. This means that nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertilizers – a greenhouse gas almost 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide – are reduced, and substantial savings can be made on nitrogen fertilizers.

Developing the human consumption market

But we also need a bigger human consumption market for our pulses. A significant proportion of UK grain is exported. In fact, we are the largest producers and exporters of beans in Europe.

Exports intended for human consumption are mainly intended for North Africa and the Arab Crescent, regions already supplied competitively by European and Australian production.

The UK domestic market is mainly limited to animal feed and aquaculture.

However, with ever-increasing demand for plant-based foods in the growing UK vegan market, the human consumption of UK-grown pulses – either whole or processed into ingredients – as a replacement for overseas-grown soya and harmful to the environment has vast potential.

The consumption of beans grown in Britain has not yet become common. This is partly because the UK market for local pulses has been stunted by a lack of investment in R&D. Such an investment is desperately needed.

In the UK and globally, R&D effort in pulses is much less than in cereals and rapeseed. The problems associated with a reduced market for pulses are partly the direct result of this narrow focus on other growing areas.

Genetic research

Beans have also been the subject of very limited research into genetic or agronomic improvement which, if undertaken, would improve yield stability and increase final quality.

Our own research at the Bean Yield Enhancement Network showed that last year one in 10 bean crops produced over 7 t/ha, and potassium inputs seemed to differentiate high yielding growers.

However, a sustained increase in demand for pulses for human consumption can only be properly achieved through policy change and realignment, including further investment in R&D efforts by bodies such as UK Research and Innovation, Innovate UK and Defra.

It is true that there has been a real underlying interest in beans in the food supply chain. We must also recognize that supply chains are complicated.

But if significant industry investments are to be made, processors need to be assured of supply when commitments are made.

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