Everyone has heard the forecasts – by 2050, it’s entirely possible that Earth will be a dried out, lifeless shell of its former self, and the human race along with it. Traditional attempts at agriculture will be futile in the face of warmer temperatures, but the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research has a development that may at least keep humanity fed as we sweat to death: “Heat-beater” beans that may be able to grow in even worst-case global temperature increases.
“This discovery could be a big boon for bean production because we are facing a dire situation where, by 2050, global warming could reduce areas suitable for growing beans by 50 percent,” said Steve Beebe, a senior CGIAR bean researcher.
In a worst-case scenario, where global temperatures have risen by 4 degrees Celsius, the newly engineered beans should still be able to grow. Even if the beans can only survive a 3 degree increase, CGIAR says the area lost for bean growth would be limited to about 5%. If so, the new beans could prevent massive production and economic crashes in parts of Latin America and Africa.
To create the beans, CGIAR scientists combined common beans (varieties we eat, including black, kidney, pinto, etc.) with a species called the tepary bean, which grows in already dry, warm areas like northern Mexico and the American southwest. Beans are an important dietary element for hundreds of millions of people, as they’re an ample source of macronutrients like protein and carbohydrates, along with essential vitamins and minerals.
Heat may already be affecting bean crops in parts of the world. A different strain of super beans was introduced in Nicaragua, in this case due to its resistance to drought conditions. However, when planted the new beans produced more than double the crops farmers were used to, which leads CGIAR scientists to believe that heat as well as drought is already taking a toll. While most bean crops start to drop off when night time lows don’t reach below about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat resistant beans do fine with lows as high as 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bean species are also being cultivated to produce more iron, an essential nutrient in the developing world. While beans are already high in iron, these new varieties could eventually provide up to 60 percent of daily iron needs for women and children–almost twice the iron of non-improved beans.
“As a result of this breakthrough, beans need not be the casualty of global warming that they seemed destined to be, but rather can offer a climate-friendly option for farmers struggling to cope with rising temperatures,” said Andy Jarvis, a CGIAR climate change expert.