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But new drought-resilient bean varieties, soon to be tested in Africa, could cushion growers against climate change
Severe drought in Ethiopia, Africa’s largest exporter of the bean used to make baked beans, could hit production for millions who cultivate and rely on income from the bean. The drought - the worst to hit the country’s bean-producing areas in 10 years, researchers report - has cut yields by 30 percent.
Low rainfall at the height of the bean season in the Rift Valley can also reduce bean quality. Combined with other factors influencing the world price - the beans are exported mostly to Europe for canning - farmers are expecting less income and prices have already fallen.
Transformed from a neglected staple into a cash crop, with exports worth more than $90 million, the grain provides income for around 3 million smallholder farmers in Ethiopia who rely on white bean sales - known locally as “white gold”- to buy food and cover other costs like school fees. Thousands more are employed in post-harvest processing of the beans for export.
Drought during this critical stage of bean development could bring a major crisis for farmers, who won’t have cash to put food on the table, say researchers. An international research network is preparing to deploy the latest drought-resilient bean varieties to Ethiopia, to be tested and evaluated by researchers at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR).
BAKED BEAN THREAT
As Africa’s only exporter and biggest producer of the white beans for processing into baked beans, Ethiopia accounts for about 10 percent of the global supply. Farmers can usually sell the bean for three times more income than that from other crops, like maize, and can also rely on beans as a source of nutrients in the local diet.
Eliud Birachi, market economist with the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), a research network that better enables national partners like EIAR to solve trade-related problems of beans, said tackling climate-related issues is critical given rising demand.
“Not only are we seeing a change in the habits of African consumers especially in urban areas, with canned and processed foods like baked beans becoming more popular. But also, investment in canning and processing technology is growing, so we expect more demand for canned bean varieties - both in Africa and abroad,” he said.
The biggest impacts of climate change are expected to be reduced volume of beans on the market, together with increased incidence of pests and diseases, he added. “This is a risk for canning companies who depend on Ethiopia for their bean supply. But it represents a double risk for farmers,” he explained.
“If export volumes decline, the global cost of beans could go up, because there will be less grain on the market. This could drive up production costs in future - and push white bean production from smallholders to commercial farmers, who can afford expensive equipment.”
It could also mean other countries already equipped with large-scale technology could produce and process more competitively. “That would be a net loss for Ethiopia and smallholder farmers - the biggest producers of these beans. Our key concern is keeping production, and the benefits, in their hands.”
“WHITE GOLD” REVOLUTION
In the last decade, Ethiopia has become the first African country to prioritise white bean production, boosting its exports from $8 million in 2004 into more than $90 million today. Production has more than doubled from 211,347 tonnes to 455,115 tonnes between 2004 and 2014.
This success is partly due to PABRA’s efforts to make the high-quality bean varieties that exporters demand readily available to farmers. Seed access has risen from 20 to 65 percent for farmers since 2004. Better bean varieties, bred and released by EIAR with support from the PABRA network, are also more tolerant to drought, pests and diseases.
The company Agricultural Commodity Supplies (ACOS), also a PABRA member, exports around 220,000 tonnes of Ethiopia’s total production annually and has been central to the white bean’s transformation. Eighty percent of its produce is exported to Europe, but opportunities are expanding globally.
Mekonnen Kebede, agronomist and contract farming coordinator for ACOS Ethiopia, said: “Demand is there, but it’s not being met fully with what farmers supply. There is still a lot to be done; that’s why we work closely with researchers to improve quality.”
Drought-tolerant varieties recently released by EIAR, with support from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) - which facilitates the PABRA network – and other partners, outperform other commercial varieties by 10 percent.
STAYING AHEAD OF CLIMATE THREATS
Future climate scenarios point to increased climate variability, which could lead to more extreme weather conditions - swings in temperature and rainfall - in turn affecting productivity, researchers say.
White bean varieties with enhanced drought tolerance are currently undergoing final tests at CIAT’s headquarters in Colombia, before being shipped to EIAR early next year. Then, the beans will undergo more rigorous tests for drought resilience, disease resistance, and canning quality in the local context.
Within two or three years, the best-performing varieties will have been whittled down to two or three top choices by researchers in Ethiopia. These will be evaluated by a release committee and officially approved before being made available for farmers to buy and grow.
Louise Sperling, seeds expert at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), says making improved bean varieties available for farmers, especially during times of crisis, is vital for smallholder livelihoods. “In Ethiopia, beans are multiplied by far-flung communities - definitely a step in the right direction,” she said.
“But with the onset of climate change, farmers need a portfolio of crops to strengthen their farms against climate shocks. New varieties can build resilience and co-exist with local varieties. It’s not just about helping farmers make more money. It’s also about adapting to change and providing nutrition.”
Sperling will deliver a keynote address on the importance of strengthening bean seed systems at an event to be held on Oct. 14 in connection with the World Food Prize, 2015 Borlaug Dialogue, taking place in Des Moines, Iowa. Titled “Breaking the bottlenecks to scale up bean seed systems in Africa,” the event is organised by CIAT and the Syngenta Foundation.