One of world’s most essential foods could soon lose its nutritional value

Whether it’s smothered in a tomato sauce or used as part of a stew, the common bean is an essential food staple of much of the world, but climate change could be about to end all that.

That’s according to new research conducted by scientists from NUI Galway in collaboration with a food security research arm of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

In a paper published to Nature Scientific Reports, the team revealed how, according to crop simulation modelling and lab experiments, the onset of climate change will reduce the common bean’s nutritional quality.

By the team’s estimates, the majority of common beans currently growing in areas in south-eastern Africa will become unsuitable for bean cultivation by the year 2050. The researchers also demonstrated reductions in yields of common bean varieties in field trial experiments at a research site that was representative of predicted drought conditions.

Need for ‘biofortification’

The nutritional analysis of the various bean varieties grown in drought-like conditions revealed that all of the micronutrients necessary for human health – such as iron – were reduced in all cases. Meanwhile, anti-nutritional compounds such as phytic acid and lead increased.

The greatest damage will, unsurprisingly, be seen in developing nations where many rely on beans, potentially making hundreds of millions of people nutritionally deficient.

“As it takes decades to develop and disseminate new crop varieties, major investment is needed now to climate-proof our crops and cropping systems, so that both their yields and nutritional quality can be resilient to future climate change stresses,” said the lead scientist of the study, Prof Charles Spillane of NUI Galway.

“Our results highlight the need for accelerated development and seed-system distribution of heat-tolerant and drought-tolerant common bean varieties that can maintain yields while also improving nutritional quality; for example, through genetic ‘biofortification’ breeding under future climate change scenarios.”

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