Meet The Cool Beans Designed To Beat Climate Change

A planet that is warming at extraordinary speed may require extraordinary new food crops. The latest great agricultural hope is beans that can thrive in temperatures that cripple most conventional beans. They're now growing in test plots of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, in Colombia.

Many of these "heat-beater" beans resulted from a unique marriage, 20 years ago, of tradition and technology. The matchmaker was a Colombian scientist named Alvaro Mejia-Jimenez. But for almost two decades, his innovation sat on the shelf, unused.

Mejia-Jimenez was determined to cross-breed two different types of beans that normally are sexually incompatible: the common bean — a species that includes pinto, black and kidney beans — and the tepary bean, a little-known crop traditionally grown by indigenous communities in the American Southwest.

The tepary bean is no longer widely planted. The beans are small, and the plant doesn't produce very many of them.

"As a crop, it doesn't have a great future," says Stephen Beebe, who leads CIAT's bean breeding program. Beebe spoke to us via Skype from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

But this bean does have its defenders. Writer, social scientist and food activist Gary Nabhan has championed it as a vital piece of Southwestern cuisine and culture. (Nabhan wrote his master's thesis on the tepary bean way back in 1978.)

Mejia-Jimenez, meanwhile, was drawn to the small bean's ability to tolerate harsh conditions, such as heat and drought. He wanted to transfer these genetic traits into the common bean.

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