Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest exporters of white beans, most commonly used to make baked beans. But, severe drought in the country is threatening bean production and the livelihoods of the smallholder farmers who are responsible for the majority of the white bean crop. Food Tank interviewed researchers from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) who wrote a recent report on this crisis and on deploying a new drought-resilient bean variety to Ethiopia.
Food Tank (FT): The drought in Ethiopia has cut yields of beans by 30 percent. Can you explain the effect this percentage has on both the economy and food production?
Georgina Smith (GS): This percentage is the estimated loss for smallholder farmers in terms of their yield. Around three million smallholder farmers in Ethiopia rely on white pea bean sales to buy food and cover other costs, like school fees. In terms of the overall impact on the economy, it is too early to tell. White pea beans are not Ethiopia’s main export, but they are worth more than US$90 million per year. In terms of the impact on food production, most of the white pea beans are not consumed domestically – their value is in the export price – but domestic consumption is increasing.
FT: Ethiopia accounts for about 10 percent of the global supply of white beans. What is the ripple effect this drought has had on the rest of the world?
GS: The threat is mostly to smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, who risk their income from the beans. If the total volume of beans for canning goes down, companies who depend on Ethiopia for their bean supply will be at risk.
According to Eliud Birachi, an International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) market economist working with the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), said tackling climate-related issues is critical given rising demand for the beans.
“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,” Birachi says.
The biggest impacts of climate change are expected to be a reduced volume of beans on the market, together with increased incidence of pests and diseases, according to Birachi. These changes create risk for canning companies who depend on Ethiopia for their supply, but it creates a double risk for smallholder farmers. Production costs may rise, which could push white bean production from smallholders to commercial farmers, who can afford the necessary equipment.
It could also mean other countries already equipped with large-scale technology could produce and process more competitively. This could mean a net loss for Ethiopian smallholder farmers.
FT: The drought is the worst to hit the country in ten years. Is climate change thought to be the cause, and can the area expect more droughts in the upcoming years?
GS: Future climate scenarios point to increased climate variability: more unpredictable and extreme weather conditions - swings in temperature and rainfall – which are likely to affect productivity. Increased weather intensity means that periods of drought or other weather extremes could be longer or more frequent in future.
FT: Will drought-resistant beans be equivalent in both safety and nutrition?
GS: In terms of nutrition, beans are often consumed as an alternative to meat where meat is rare or too expensive, or when consumers are health conscience. However, for farmers, the bean’s main value lies in the price the farmers can get over other alternatives. They are effectively a cash crop, albeit one that farmers can (and increasingly do) eat. On the global market, the beans are canned and eaten as baked beans. They are high in fiber content and protein, and a good source of vitamin B1, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, iron, and zinc. CIAT has also initiated a breeding program for increasing iron and zinc levels in beans to address a deficiency in these micronutrients.
FT: Ethiopia has become the first African country to prioritize white bean production. Can we expect neighboring countries to follow suit? Would this be a welcome change?
GS: PABRA has shared its experiences, knowledge and bean germplasm from Ethiopia to other PABRA members through the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS). For example, in Kenya, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization and the University of Nairobi have released five canning bean varieties. The Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) has one variety, and the Crop Breeding Institute in Zimbabwe is about to release two varieties. These efforts are carried out in partnership with private investors (e.g. canning factories) like Trufood in Kenya and other seed companies.
Louise Sperling, a seed expert at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), says making improved bean varieties available for farmers, especially during times of crisis, is vital for smallholder livelihoods. She advocates for crop diversity to minimize the impacts of climate change. New crop varieties can build resilience, provide nutrition, and help farmers adapt to change.
FT: Are there other weather conditions that could affect bean production? What are they, and will the beans be resistant to those conditions as well?
GS: As a result of climate, new pests and diseases are emerging that affect bean production and research is underway to ensure that new varieties will be able to withstand many other challenges. The first batch of improved beans being tested in Ethiopia will be released early next year. They will be exposed to local conditions and evaluated to withstand a wide range of challenges - including pests, diseases, and higher temperatures.
FT: What other crops are currently in danger due to weather patterns? Can we expect these obstacles to be solved in the near future?
GS: The International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s (CIAT) research specifically focuses on beans in Africa, as well as tropical forages and soils. Almost all legumes and cereals are expected to be affected in future. Under PABRA, facilitated by CIAT, bean research members in thirty countries across Africa continue to conduct research to ensure that farmers and market-preferred bean varieties can respond to future challenges - including those posed by climate change.