Shrinking the Hunger Season, One Bean at a Time

September 27, 2021 By Alexandra Moyer

The western highland region in Guatemala, which includes a portion of the well-known dry corridor of Central America, has some of the highest levels of malnutrition, especially among children and women. The mostly rural country has 60 percent of its population living on farms where maize and beans are the staple crops. Current bean production and consumption is insufficient to meet nutritional needs, especially among poorer households, and few other sources of protein are available to families in the area. Higher bean yields means that these farmers can sell more beans to support their families both financially and nutritionally. The growing season in Guatemala is much longer than it is in the United States; it starts mid-March and runs through mid-October. During the last six to eight weeks, families waiting for the crops to mature are in near-starvation mode. Juan and Phil noted that “this is when it comes to a head—timing the need for food and the need for cash.”

Juan M. Osorno, a native of Columbia, has lived in North Dakota for the past twenty years and has built his career in dry bean research. Phil McClean, while an undergraduate student, wanted to work in plants, and the place he found an opening was with the dry bean research team at Colorado State University. Juan and Phil both describe the dry bean research community unlike any other, “we come together and support each other.”

When asked why dry beans, Juan said, “it was serendipity” that brought him and dry beans together when he took his first job after graduating from North Dakota State University. In 2014 at North Dakota State University, Juan and Phil began collaborative bean breeding research targeting the Western highlands agroecosystem in Guatemala.

Battling the Hunger Season

The project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research. Research for the highland bean production systems, which is different from the lowland systems, was lacking. The Feed the Future Legume Lab identified the needs for the project and Juan and Phil put it together. The project was called, “Genetic Improvement of Middle-American Climbing Beans for Guatemala,” and worked closely with the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (ICTA) in Guatemala.

The mission of the project was to strengthen the capacity at the local research institute to continue developing and improving bean varieties with higher yields while providing technical advice on how to conduct the bean breeding process, developing those varieties, and helping to train the “next generation of plant breeders” in local communities.

Most farmers in this region use the milpa intercropping system that dates back to the ages of the Mayans and the Aztecs. This system involves farmers establishing the corn plants and then planting climbing beans that are supported by the corn plants. These climbing beans wrap around the 12-foot-high corn stalks. However, productivity of the current climbing beans is about one-third of their genetic potential; pests and diseases are the main reason yields are reduced.

Higher yields, Healthier Families

Working hand-in-hand with ICTA, the project used 600 accessions of climbing beans throughout Guatemala and worked to develop a germplasm with improved resistance to pests and disease resulting in greater yield potential. In 2017, the team was able to release two new bean varieties that produce higher yields in the western highland region. The first new bean variety released matures a month earlier than other climbing bean varieties with greater yields. For smallholder farmers in the region, who experience the seasonal hunger period when the previous season’s food stores are depleted, this is a step in the right direction to alleviating food insecurity.

In addition, both Juan and Phil had access to use this new/unique germplasm within the NDSU breeding/genetics program, which offers new potential sources of genes of interest such as disease resistance and seed yield, among others. This is proof that these types of international cooperative projects allow for mutual benefits. In the future, it may be possible that new improved varieties released to North Dakota farmers may have some new/interesting traits that would benefit the region for example. There are previous examples showing that successful bean varieties in the US were developed thanks to the use of new/exotic germplasm obtained through these types of projects.

Feed the Future

The Feed the Future Initiative was also motivated by the decline in global agricultural investment, particularly in developing nations. Feed the Future works across sectors and partners with businesses, non-profits, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and universities to help lift some of the world’s poorest communities out of food insecurity by providing the knowledge and training for these communities to sustain their needs. By partnering with U.S. universities, Feed the Future Innovation Labs draw on universities’ expertise and research to tackle global hunger and food insecurity.

North Dakota State University is a North Dakota Advisory Committee Member of USGLC.