Beans, glorious beans

A healthier, climate friendly alternative to ultra-processed fake meat products

28th October 2021

“If I was to choose one thing about legumes to emphasise, it would be that good management of plant nitrogen can do as much to combat climate change as the sequestration of carbon.

As food giants develop ultra-processed, low-nutrient products like vegan shrimp, one research team is exploring routes to market for a healthier, climate-friendly vegan alternative to ultra-processed products, that also supports local jobs. To find out more, FFCC Scotland’s Chair Lorna Dawson visited Dr Pete Iannetta, Food Systems Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute.

Pete Iannetta displaying the Scottish bean

Pete Iannetta’s unsung food hero is Henry Taylor – who, before he died recently, was a quiet, unassuming force in the race to find food that is sustainable and healthy. Henry was a Field Trials Officer at the James Hutton Institute on the east coast of Scotland, and a life-long vegetarian. This drew him to the idea of breeding a new variety of bean – one that both tasted good and ripened quickly in the Scottish climate. He succeeded in developing ‘the Scottish bean’ - a dwarf fava bean - and his legacy, if all goes well, will be heading to a table near you.

What’s so good about the Scottish bean? Pete explains, “The fact the Scottish bean is early to ripen is key. It allows us to use the nitrogen-rich residue in the soil, left by a first crop of beans, to quickly sow a second crop and take advantage of the nitrogen benefits.” The beans are also small, easily cooked as a whole bean, and their skin is thin and palatable – attributes we don’t often think about, but which are critical to retail product development.

“The Scottish bean has the potential to deliver strong yields without synthetic fertiliser.”

The benefits don’t stop there. The large-scale commercial cropping of common beans, normally used for canned baked bean products need “around 50 kilogrammes of nitrogen added per hectare” says Pete, while the Scottish bean doesn’t need this added fertilisation at all. In fact, it illustrates how an ancient and symbiotic relationship does the job instead: soil bacteria fix the nitrogen from the Scottish beans and gives it to the plant in return for a safe place to live - inside nodules on the bean plant’s root system. With this quiet miracle, the Scottish bean has potential to deliver strong yields without synthetic fertiliser and provide a vital source of nectar and pollen for insects too. On top of all this, it’s also extremely tasty, and its higher levels of protein, starch and antioxidants make it a healthier option too.

“Agriculture's footprint is generally 25% greenhouse gases from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. The Scottish bean could help eliminate that.”

All of this makes the Scottish bean an ideal option for farmers who are moving away from synthetic fertilisers as a first step towards agroecology and regenerative farming. Pete explains: “Farmers have two ways of getting nitrogen, which is critically important for good crop growth and good crop yields, into the system. One way is to use animals and the other is to use legumes. There is no other natural way.” He notes that while there are people experimenting with products like slow-release fertilisers, the benefit of animal manure or legumes is that they deliver more than just nitrogen, because they improve the soil microbiome, soil structure, and its function. “They're creating a positive legacy, very complex natural provisions from legumes and from animals which is unparalleled. I fail to see how anything man-made could match what they're providing,” he enthuses.

It’s a solution that goes right to the very heart of some of the biggest challenges facing Scottish farming right now. Pete emphasises, “The role of biologically fixed nitrogen and its good management is not being given sufficient prominence and that really needs to be prioritised”.

The Scottish bean in flower [Image courtesy of the The James Hutton Institute]

The beans also perform well when they are direct drilled, which means that you don’t need to plough the soil. Pete explains, “When soil is ploughed, you get a significant increase in emissions of greenhouse gases, so reducing ploughing with crops like beans is important.” There’s a benefit for crop diversity too. “Globally, crop rotations are dominated by five or six crops (dictated by the global food market) – when ideally we’d have at least 15-25% of land covered by grain legumes.”

In light of these benefits for climate and health, Pete notes with irony that most fava beans currently grown in Scotland for human consumption are being exported to North Africa – and some even then imported back in the form of falafel and other speciality foods. A key challenge is to shorten this supply chain and bring back beans, which played an important role historically in the Scottish diet, to all types of cooking.

Hopes are running high for the future of the Scottish bean.

Hopes are now running high for the future of the Scottish bean. The laboratory tests have gone well and, despite rising energy prices, the plan is to launch the Scottish bean in 2023 in partnership with Scottish grocery CIC Glasgow Locavore. It’s being sold both as cooked, tinned beans and as baked beans, products very familiar to people. Pete is looking forward to “hearing from consumers on the product taste, what they think about the nutritional information, and critically how they feel regarding the fact that their purchasing choice supports sustainable farming, locally.” The project has been funded by the Scottish Government, the European Union and some of the businesses they have worked with along the way. If the bean proves popular, the hope is that it will start to be used by more people day-to-day and in a much wider range of products.

So far, about two and half tonnes of Taylor’s beans have been harvested. Some will go to a local organic grower who will work with Glasgow Locavore to grow the beans for the retail market, and the rest will come back to The James Hutton Institute for canning tests and additional field trials, to assess how well it intercrops with barley for example.

Pete Iannetta explaining the benefits of the Scottish bean at The James Hutton Institute

Through the SEFARI Gateway knowledge and impact hub, The James Hutton Institute is collaborating with other institutions like SRUC, hoping to innovate and encourage further breeding initiatives. Pete says he is “keen to encourage farmers and small producer horticulturalists, like Henry Taylor, to keep developing the bean, and reinvigorate the social culture - sharing beans at farmers markets, doing it for themselves.” There may also be opportunities to grow the beans in innovative systems such as vertical farms. Early studies suggest the bean (in a controlled environment with different strains of bacteria added) may grow twelve times larger than at present.

For now though, the focus is on introducing the world to a little bean nurtured quietly and carefully by Henry Taylor, that could soon see great strides forwards for sustainable diets in Scotland, and beyond. Welcome the Scottish bean to our home plates.

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.