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Feeding the Future With Pulse Crops

A Ugandan farmer with harvested yellow beans.
 At a test site in Rakai, Uganda, a farmer harvests yellow
 beans for a study of their disease resistance, seed yields,
 and cooking time. (Karen Cichy, D3544-1)


The year 2016 has been dubbed the “International Year of Pulses” by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). The goal of the initiative is to heighten consumer awareness of the nutritional and other benefits of pulse crops as well as to marshal the capabilities of agricultural research organizations worldwide in developing new, improved varieties that will further global food security and sustainable agriculture.

Pulses are the dry edible seeds of certain leguminous plants, including dry peas, lentils, chickpeas, and dry beans (such as kidney and navy beans), but not fresh green beans, fresh peas, soybeans, or peanuts.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “Pulses are a vital source of plant-based proteins and amino acids for people around the globe and should be eaten as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, as well as to prevent and help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions, and cancer; they are also an important source of plant-based protein for animals.”

The Agricultural Research Service has long been a proponent of pulse crops, with one research program—the Dry Bean Project at Prosser, Washington—dating back to 1958 and currently serving growers and other industry members in more than 11 states across the country. Scientists with the agency are also making global contributions, particularly through their participation in the Feed the Future (FtF) Grain Legumes Project, a food security initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Pulses are historically important food crops, and ARS is a leader in developing high-yielding varieties with enhanced nutritional qualities,” says plant geneticist George Vandemark, who leads the agency’s Grain Legume Genetics and Physiology Research Unit in Pullman, Washington.

Vandemark’s laboratory is one of several ARS locations across the country whose pulse crop research programs produce improved germplasm and commercial varieties offering better resistance to pests and diseases, greater tolerance to environmental extremes like drought, improved nutritional quality, and other traits benefiting growers, processors, and consumers.

Over the past 5 years, in partnership with USAID and through their participation in the FtF Grain Legumes Project, ARS scientists at five locations have brought their considerable expertise to bear in addressing some of the agricultural challenges faced by rural and small-holdings farmers in developing regions of the world where pulses, particularly dry beans, are staple food crops.  

  A selection of Andean dry beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, from the Andean bean
  diversity panel. (Stephen Ausmus, D3561-3)

Below is a snapshot of some the latest contributions of ARS’s FtF legume team, which includes Phil Miklas (Grain Legume Genetics and Physiology Research Unit, Pullman); Karen Cichy (Sugarbeet and Bean Research Unit, East Lansing, Michigan); Talo Pastor-Corrales (Soybean Genomics and Improvement Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland); Tim Porch (Tropical Agriculture Research Station, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico); and Mike Grusak (Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Houston, Texas):

• The Andean Diversity Panel (ADP), a collection of nearly 500 accessions of large-seeded dry beans of Andean descent obtained from more than a dozen countries in South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and parts of North America. ADP database information includes analyses from genomic mapping and genotyping, physical and biochemical descriptions of the accessions, and DNA markers associated with genes for important traits like higher mineral content, adaptability to nutrient-poor soils, and resistance to diseases like rust and angular leaf spot that can decimate susceptible bean crops. 

• Demonstration that certain genomic regions are responsible for “fast cooking,” a valuable trait that can reduce the cooking time of beans—thus reducing the amount of fuel needed to prepare meals in resource-poor households. FtF team members are also investigating the role of other contributing factors, namely, seed mineral concentrations (before and after cooking) to assess their correlations with cooking time.

• Use of a plant breeding technique called “pyramid stacking” to develop red, pinto, great northern, and navy beans with adaptability to a broad range of conditions, including extreme heat, productivity in nutrient-poor soils, and limited irrigation. Together with University of Puerto Rico colleagues, FtF team members have provided breeding and pathology training to East African, Haitian, and Central American scientists, particularly in developing locally adapted varieties that can withstand common bacterial blight, angular leaf spot, and other bean diseases.

• Identification of broad-spectrum resistance to the bean rust fungus in large-seeded cultivars from Tanzania and Ecuadorian germplasm lines. Crosses are under way to transfer the rust resistance into dry bean market classes (yellow, red-mottled, white, and tan) for small-holdings farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, where fungicide use to prevent outbreaks can be too costly.

• Evaluations of the agronomic performance of common and tepary (southwestern) beans inoculated with strains of Bradyrhizobium bacteria, which convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plants can use for their growth—reducing the need to apply fertilizers for subsequent crops.—By Jan Suszkiw, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Feeding the Future With Pulse Cropswas published in the February 2016 issue of AgResearch Magazine.

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