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December 7, 2017

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‘Super beans’ new hope for hunger-prone Africa

RICHARD Opio dipped a dirt-stained hand into the pinkish beans, marveling at the dramatic changes they’ve made for his family. They used to harvest two sacks of normal beans; now they take in six.

The so-called “super bean,” a fast-maturing, high-yield variety, is being promoted by Uganda’s government and agriculture experts amid efforts to feed hunger-prone parts of Africa. It’s also a step toward the next goal: the “super, super bean.” The beans are produced by conventional genetic selection, not contentious genetic modification.

The beans that Opio now tends are thrilling farmers in this impoverished part of northern Uganda.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture says the beans have been bred by conventional means to resist drought.

The group operates one of just two bean “gene banks” in Africa, which is expected to be hit hardest by climate change even though the continent produces less than 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

One “gene bank” is on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. The other is in Malawi. Beans kept at the two banks are sent to partners in 30 countries across the continent.

The Uganda bank stores around 4,000 types of beans, including some sourced from neighboring Rwanda before its 1994 genocide killed around 800,000 people and wiped out many of the country’s bean varieties.

“The beans have to go through certain rigorous tests before they can be released to the general public, to make sure they do actually address all the issues well and perform well in different climatic conditions,” said Stanley Nkalubo, a legumes research scientist with Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization.

The red-striped bean that 35-year-old Opio grows is called NABE15, and it has proved so popular that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently contracted a large commercial producer to supply 21 tons for distribution to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda to encourage the refugees to grow their own food rather than rely on handouts.

“It is important that other sources of food be found to complement the food assistance,” said Beatrice Okello, senior program manager with FAO in Uganda. Just 50 kilograms of seeds can yield up to 2,000 kilograms of beans.

Experts say the “super” beans are valuable because they cook quickly and tolerate most diseases and pests. The “super” beans aren’t perfect, but experts are looking to genetic tools for future solutions.

“It’s very hard to breed any single bean variety with the very best of traits — early maturing, drought-tolerant, pest-tolerant, high micronutrients,” said Debisi Araba, the African head of the Center for Tropical Agriculture. That would be the super, super bean.

“But that’s what we are working toward,” Araba said.


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