High-iron beans: a new "superfood" for Colombia

High-iron beans: a new "superfood" for Colombia

New high-iron beans have been officially released in Colombia. They contain as much as 60% more iron than normal beans, and are intended to address the problem of iron deficiency – the world’s most persistent nutritional ailment.

Affecting up to 2 billion people globally, iron deficiency can lead to impaired cognitive and physical development in children, while anaemia, often caused by iron deficiency, increases risks to women during childbirth. In Colombia, iron deficiency affects up to 35 per cent of children under 12, with hotspots in the country’s Atlantic coast and Amazon regions.

“This is the number one public health concern in the world in terms of the sheer number of people who suffer from it,” said Steve Beebe, leader of CIAT’s Bean Research Program, which was closely involved in the development of the two high-iron bean varieties released in the country last week. “These new beans should enable farmers to grow their own nutrition more effectively, and help efforts to tackle the problem of micronutrient deficiency at its core.”

Around 200 farmers attended the launch event near Barichara, in Colombia’s Santander Department.

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Farmers at the launch event for new high-iron beans, near Barichara, Santander Department, Colombia

These new beans should enable farmers to grow their own nutrition more effectively, and help efforts to tackle the problem of micronutrient deficiency at its core.

Steve Beebe

Leader, CIAT Bean Program

Beans, a popular staple in Colombia, typically contain around 50 parts per million of iron; the new varieties contain 82 ppm – about 60% more. They have also been bred to contain 50% more zinc – a micronutrient vital for a strong immune system.

As well as being more nutritious, the new beans – referred to as BIO101 and BIO107 – also produce good yields and are of the shape, size and colour preferred by farmers in the region.

Beebe added that since beans are already a good source of protein and carbohydrate, the new varieties could be considered “superfoods.”

The new beans were developed using a method called biofortification, which uses traditional crop breeding practices to increase the levels of important nutrients in staple crops.

The work was undertaken by Fenalce, FIDAR and CIAT, under the auspices of HarvestPlus, a global biofortification initiative jointly led by CIAT and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). HarvestPlus has already released a range of biofortified crops containing higher levels of key nutrients such as Vitamin A, iron and zinc across the developing world.

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Biofortified bean variety BIO101, which contains around 60% more iron than normal beans.

It is the first time biofortified beans have been released in the Andean zone of Colombia. Releases of high-zinc maize, and high-zinc rice are scheduled to take place in the next year. Vitamin-A cassava is also in the pipeline.

“By developing a range of biofortified crops, we’re trying to establish is a ‘food basket’ approach,” said Wolfgang Pfeiffer, global director of product development and commercialisation at HarvestPlus, who also attended Thursday’s event.

“It means that by combining different biofortified foods in the diet, you get complementary improvements in nutrition.”

HarvestPlus nutritionist Elise Talsma said: “It was great to see so many farmers at the event, all keen to find out more about the new beans and benefits they can provide.

“Beans are such an important staple in Colombia that it makes perfect sense to try and tackle the endemic problems of iron deficiency and anaemia by improving the nutritional value of the foods people already know and love.”

Following release of the new beans, the next step will be for certified farmers to grow them specifically to increase the availability of seed, which can then be sold widely for planting. Work is also underway to develop high-iron beans that are adapted to grow in other parts of the country. Departmental governments of Santander, Tolima and Valle Del Cauca have already expressed their interest to in including iron beans in school feeding programs.

“It’s extremely encouraging to see so many governments around the world recognizing that a strategy such as biofortification is a tremendous tool to help improve the health of their people,” continued Beebe. “It’s a great moment for Colombia, for farmers, all of our research partners and, of course, the United Nations’ International Year of Pulses, which is helping raise awareness of the nutritional importance of these foods.”

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). A guest takes a closer look at one of the iron-biofortified bean varieties released at a special event near Barichara, Santander Department, Colombia

How were the beans biofortified?
Screening more than 1,000 beans conserved in the CIAT genebank, Beebe and his team of bean breeders found several to contain high levels of iron. These beans were then crossbred with varieties popular in Colombia to ensure they were adapted to local conditions, and were of acceptable size, colour and taste for farmers and consumers. They are also as high yielding as local varieties, and able to tolerate major fungal and viral diseases. Their release in Santander follows extensive testing to ensure good yields and to confirm their nutrient concentration.

Call to Action

1. Efforts are required to further improve the yields of biofortified beans beyond those of standard beans. Biofortified beans and the farmers that grown them would benefit from a range of additional traits such as resistance to disease, and adaptation to poor soils.

2. Biofortified beans need to reach those farmers in the form of seed for planting, and creative mechanisms are needed achieve this on a broad scale in different regions of the world.

3. Biofortified beans must be part of public health policies to address malnutrition. To support this, nutritional education is needed to show the importance of biofortified beans and other nutritious crops that can constitute a healthy, balanced ‘food basket’.

HarvestPlus’ principal donors are the UK Government; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation;  the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative; the European Commission; and donors to the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, of which HarvestPlus is a part.