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Better Beans From ARS Breeders

It's relatively easy to carry crops from one part of the world and plant them in other hemispheres.

But even though they may have some extremely useful characteristics, such new introductions rarely thrive in their new environments—mainly because they aren't adapted to different day length or other environmental conditions. The real challenge is to cross the exotic line with domestic cultivars to develop new varieties that effectively handle local environmental stresses, while producing excellent yields and resisting attack from insects and diseases.

Thanks to productive breeding programs, beans originating in Central America are now an important crop in the United States. Today, U.S. farmers annually produce nearly $1 billion worth of fresh snap beans and dry edible beans.

"We can state with confidence that our agency has contributed significant amounts of germplasm to breeding programs across the country," says ARS' Matt J. Silbernagel. "For example, almost all of beans' resistance to major diseases in the United States came from our labs or resulted from federal or state public research programs.

"The fact that we can't find any commercial bean varieties that don't have any disease resistance factors is a positive reflection on how much cooperation there has been over the past 60 years among scientists in the federal, state, and private sectors," adds Silbernagel, a plant pathologist in the ARS Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit at Prosser, Washington.

Of all dry bean varieties currently grown in the United States, probably 70 to 75 percent—and 98 percent of snap beans—contain some germplasm that was incorporated from ARS releases.

Annual U.S. edible dry bean production has exceeded a million tons for the past several years. Included in this total are the pinto, navy, Great Northern, kidney, lima, small white and red, black, and pink beans that are eaten after they have matured and dried. In 1990 and 1991, production reached nearly 1.7 million tons—around 33 million hundredweight. Value of these dry bean crops usually ranges between $600 million and $750 million annually.

Whereas harvested dry bean acreage in 1993 was about 1.6 million, the U.S. snap bean production area ranges from 300,000 to 350,000 acres. These beans include the string, stringless, and wax beans that are eaten when they are immature pods. Their annual value is from $150 to $200 million. — By Dennis Senft, ARS.

USDA-ARS Vegetable and Forage Crop Research Unit, 24106 N Bunn Road, Prosser, WA 99350-9687; phone (509) 786-9205.


"Better Beans From ARS Breeders" was published in the September 1995 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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