A Plan for Plenty
Poor soils and outdated agricultural practices have long plagued food producers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Can a starchy staple offer hope for something better? By Randy Mertens
orking on some of the oldest and most nutrient-challenged croplands on Earth, farmers in much of Sub-Saharan Africa struggle to stave off hunger. Those tilling the soil in the eastern regions of the continent face particularly long odds. Stuck in a seemingly perpetual cycle of poverty, they are barely able to grow enough food to sustain life, much less surplus to sell.
According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at any given time more than 29 percent of Africa’s population is at risk for hunger, a figure that ranks worst in the world. The United Nation’s World Food Program estimates that one person in four is undernourished.
A project run jointly by Pennsylvania State University and MU is blending advanced plant breeding, social science and digital-age communications to expand cultivation and consumption of one particular crop that can thrive in poor soil, feed people and help replenish soils for future generations. That plant is the common bean.
The effort, dubbed Beans for Bad Soils, is intended to accelerate small farmers’ access to transformative agricultural techniques and technologies. It is led by Jill Findeis, director of MU’s Division of Applied Social Sciences. Findeis, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, has been working to improve food security and nutrition in Africa for more than three decades.
Soon after beginning her academic career at Penn State, Findeis learned that a pervasive lack of phosphorus in certain African soils was a significant barrier to agricultural progress. Phosphorus is a macronutrient that is critical to plant health and reproduction.
“I was at Penn State for 29 years,” say Findeis. “[Professor of Plant Nutrition] Jonathon Lynch and I were engaged in projects there to develop phosphorous-efficient legumes that would be broadly accessible and accepted by farmers. The idea was to use breeding lines that were local, that African people had familiarity with, but breed them — using non-GM methods — so that they need less fertilizer.”
From those beginnings, she says, their work eventually came to include beans bred to be “climate resilient;” that is, more likely to withstand the greater variability in weather that scientists say will likely result from a warming planet. While work has now expanded to include other legumes, Findeis remains focused on “common beans,” Phaseolus vulgaris, those everyday grocery-store staples consumed worldwide.
“When I came to Missouri in 2011, I wasn’t sure I would continue the work,” says Findeis. “But I decided that younger colleagues — the new generation of scientists — could benefit from opportunities in Africa. Our MU team includes journalism faculty, plant scientists, and social scientists.”
Bowl of Healthy
Experts say beans could meet almost 50 percent of dietary protein requirements of households in Sub-Saharan regions.
She says the project’s approach is multifold. One aspect involves working with plant scientists who are collaborating to breed beans for the region. Another includes developing strategies, based on social science research, that improve farmer access to good seed. Finally, project members will roll out communications and educational campaigns touting beans’ advantages.
The effort, with funding support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation, is aimed at benefitting the poorest of Africa’s farmers. Its initial bean-centered focus is on the East African nations of Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique. Work with other legumes is moving forward in Ghana, Ethiopia and Zambia.
“We have close relationships with partners across Africa,” Findeis says. “We’re very connected to CIAT [International Center for Tropical Agriculture]. The bean breeders at CIAT know the local context extremely well. They understand, for example, that developing a bean variety that has a long cooking time won’t be accepted by households.” Cooking time matters, she says, because in rural areas food preparation is typically done over an open wood fire. Fuel wood is scarce and expensive in many parts of Africa.
Since it was founded in 1967, CIAT, based in Cali, Colombia, has used science and agricultural technology to improve yields in the world’s tropical climates. Today it is one of 15 centers that comprise the CGIAR Consortium, a massive collaborative international network that seeks to use “agri-food science and innovation to enable poor people, especially poor women, to increase agricultural productivity and resilience, share in economic growth, feed themselves and their families better, and conserve natural resources.”
Beans have the nutritional pedigree to advance this goal. Throughout human history, they have been a crucial diet staple. Paleobotanical findings in recent years have provided compelling evidence that their consumption and cultivation dates back to the dawn of agrarian settlement, while evidence of dried legumes show up in the archeological record as early as the 10th millennia BC.
Americans consume, on average, about 6.5 pounds of dry beans yearly, a little more than a quarter of the three cups of beans per week that federal dietary guidelines recommend. That’s a shame, since dry beans are nutrient-dense per calorie, and are an excellent source of copper, phosphorus, manganese and magnesium. Just one cup of beans can deliver 830 calories, 95 percent of a person’s daily requirement of potassium and almost 70 percent of dietary fiber. That same cup of beans can also provide enough calcium, iron and magnesium to more than satisfy all of a person’s daily needs.
For Africa, these nutritional benefits could be a game changer. Development experts say legume cultivation and consumption has the potential to meet almost 50 percent of dietary protein requirements of Sub-Saharan households.
The good news is that beans have already had some success. In areas where they can be easily cultivated, the annual per capita consumption of beans is trending upward — especially among low-income people who cannot afford to buy meat and fish. Not so good are statistics indicating that, in areas of the continent most in need of what beans have to offer, harvests have often lagged, typically coming in at just one-tenth to one-third of average global yields.
There are a number of barriers to successful farming in East Africa, but one of the most critical involves those phosphorus-deficient soils. Happily, Penn State plant scientists earlier reported “significant progress” toward achieving “project goals, which can be highlighted as evaluation and development of P-efficient common bean genotypes adapted to local conditions.”
Vendors in rural Mozambique display legumes for sale.
Photo by Nina Furstenau.
When more widely introduced during subsequent phases of the project, Findeis hopes these phosphorus-efficient superstars will be accepted as part of Africa's rich legumic legacy. “If you get the chance to spend time in Africa,” she says, “you’ll see many different kinds of these beans: the small red and black ‘Mesoamerican’ beans, the large cream and speckled ‘Andean’ types, and more. Many are quite beautiful.’
It’s a beauty that goes beyond skin deep, Findeis adds, especially in the context of Africa’s nutrient-challenged earth. The usual prescription for improving such soils involves the application of chemical fertilizer. Common beans, even those not bred for low-phosphorus conditions, have the ability to “fix” nitrogen, a key fertilizer, in the soil.
Another benefit from beans, especially climate-resilient varieties bred by the project’s plant scientists, is that their roots can grow both shallow and deep. Roots near the surface can uptake nutrients there, while deeper shoots can obtain moisture during dry periods. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of Central and Southern African growing areas are affected by drought.
Despite their obvious attractions, convincing farmers of beans’ bright future will take some effort. Farms in Mozambique, for example, are mostly small, generally just a few acres or less, and typically operate at a subsistence level. Due to cash constraints and shortages among local distributors, seed is often difficult to procure. Hand tools, animal power and manual labor are the norm. Women mostly tend the fields, while men take paid employment in the villages.
Old habits die hard in such places. And for families in subsistence mode, taking on an unfamiliar crop represents a real gamble. That’s where AdZou — a capstone strategic communications course in MU’s School of Journalism — comes in.
The AdZou team is developing a campaign designed to tout beans’ benefits to farmers, many of whom are not literate. Amy Dunaway and Jon Stemmle of MU's Health Communication Research Center, and Nina Furstenau of the Science and Agriculture Journalism Program, are leading the students.
“They asked, ‘How do you put together a campaign to try to get people to eat nutritiously, and to include beans?’” says Findeis. “And the students came up with some great ideas that we will be implementing, via radio spots and direct contact in the villages, as the project moves forward.”
Findeis says that the next phase for Beans for Bad Soils involves scaling up — broadening participation and outreach while enlisting NGOs and governments to partner with seed companies. Bringing more nutritional benefits to men, women and children will be an important result, she says, as will improvements in soil quality. And if these beans are accepted as a staple, and turn out to be as prolific as hoped, sales of surplus crops could give farmers an income stream that could help end the cycle of subsistence and poverty.
“This may not be the solution to end hunger in Africa,” Findeis says, “but it may be part of one.”
— Charles E. Reineke contributed to this story.