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Best Beans in the Business: Dr. Beebe’s & CIAT’s Work with High-Iron Beans
By: Zoe Womack, Policy and Research Intern
To honor the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates, this blog is the third in a series on biofortification, featuring global scientific advancements and their potential for improving lives and nutrition around the world. For more detailed information on the background of biofortification, check out our first blog here.
The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a global agriculture research institution, began its first African program in the 1980s focused on the productivity of dry beans in Rwanda. Rwandans consume 29 kilograms of the dry beans per person per year, making it the highest bean consuming country in the world. CIAT’s bean research is led by Dr. Stephen E. Beebe who has decades of experience breeding bean varieties that flourish at the higher Rwandan altitudes, while improving yields and maintaining local taste preferences.
In the 1990s, Dr. Beebe began focusing on improving the nutritional quality of dry beans. Many of the people who eat beans on a daily basis do not consume enough micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, which contributes to cognitive impairment in children and other diseases. In 1994, Dr. Beebe and CIAT, in partnership with HarvestPlus, began researching the possibility of fortifying beans with iron during the breeding process so that farmers could grow iron-fortified beans for themselves. Dr. Beebe called the process biofortification.
The project used biofortification techniques to develop a high-iron bean that has a 50 to 80 percent higher iron content than non-fortified beans and is also drought tolerant. The beans were released for commercialized trade in 2012 to Rwandan markets and agrodealers. Since then, high-iron beans have been used in more than 15 countries with the most recent addition being Colombia.
According to a new study, the high-iron beans developed by Dr. Beebe are showing impressive increases in iron absorption, more so than other iron-biofortified crops, including pearl millet and rice. Eating biofortified high-iron beans twice a day for just four-and-a-half months reduces iron deficiency and anemia in young women in Rwanda. Mercy Lung’aho, a nutritionist at CIAT stated that high-iron beans are “an excellent vehicle for delivering long-term, low-cost solutions to a major health problem. This has profound implications for global nutrition and public health policy.”
After 39 years of groundbreaking work, Dr. Beebe and the CIAT bean breeding program are a powerful example of the agriculture-nutrition connection and an institutional success story. The research teams’ efforts to biofortify beans is now paving the way to improve the health of 400 million people who live in tropical regions and rely on a daily intake of beans as a source of calories and nutrition. Dr. Beebe’s work has inspired scientists and others working in agriculture to improve the nutrition of crops through biofortification.