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NIAB Scientists Research Faba Bean, an Under Developed Crop

02 September 2008

A revived interest in the faba bean could see it playing an increasingly significant role in UK food production. Research scientists at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge are hoping that their ground breaking research will result in improved, disease resistant faba beans becoming a more popular crop in Great Britain.

The faba bean (or field bean) is the same species as the broad bean, but its seed characters are quite distinct. Certain varieties of field bean have characteristics which make them suitable for human consumption, and these are exported to Middle Eastern countries where they are consumed in the daily diet in a variety of dishes and snacks. However, as a rich source of protein and carbohydrates, the seed is also used in the UK as animal feed, and the crop provides an attractive rotational break.

Dr Jane Thomas, NIAB plant pathologist, said NIAB was now conducting a significant level of faba bean pre-breeding research, as well as being contracted to undertake testing of varieties for the Processors and Growers’ Research Organisation and plant breeders for the national list system.

She said: “Field beans were cultivated in the early part of the last century when they were grown extensively for animal consumption and it was a major crop in the UK, but gradually it declined.

“However, it is now becoming significant again because of its quality for the export market and there is increasing interest in its sustainable credentials as home grown protein for animal feed. About 120,000 hectares of faba beans are being grown in the UK this year, and this is forecast to increase next year.

“It is most certainly an under developed crop which could provide a valuable contribution to animal feeds and could be consumed by pigs, cattle and chicken.”

As a first step towards breeding improved faba beans, NIAB scientists have accessed the world’s largest faba bean gene bank collection of diverse varieties from all around the world held by ICARDA (the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) to assist their innovative research. Dr Donal O’Sullivan, Genetics of Disease Resistance Program Leader, explained some of the problems faced by the faba bean crop:

“In recent years, the faba bean crop has been increasingly affected by an insect which lays its eggs on the pod, burrows into the growing seeds, and then the larva emerges from the seed, making a hole, which is quite off-putting for human consumers. The damage has been quite extensive, reaching a high level in 2006. As a result of this, many people who had been growing beans for the human export market turned away from faba bean.

“ICARDA have provided us a core set of 600 accessions giving a very wide sampling of faba bean genetic diversity and we have commenced trialling this material in 2008. The immediate objective is to pick out any lines which have resisted bruchid infestation that could signal potential disease resistance. This is part of a LINK project coordinated by PGRO.  Secondly, we want to increase the amount of diversity that is available to UK faba breeders and give them the opportunity to observe this material in the field. We are hoping our research will produce solutions which will resolve the bruchid issue and restore confidence in this crop.”

In a separate project, PhD student Natalia Stawniak is investigating resistance to a devastating nematode pest of faba beans. The significant results could be used within the UK to improve resistance to the nematode. Results so far indicate that the so-called giant race of the nematode (Ditylenchus dipsaci) predominates on the faba bean crop, a second race known as oat-onion is quite rare. Fortunately, a high level of resistance to the giant race has already been identified, and this could be incorporated into material for the UK.

NIAB is also contributing to two other important projects involving the faba bean, both funded by Defra. The first is called the Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network, led by the John Innes Centre. The PCGIN has looked at the genetic and phenotypic variation present in UK varieties, and allowed some overseas varieties to be trialled for the first time in the UK.

In addition, a £1.5 million Defra-LINK project called Green Pig, led by the Scottish Agricultural College, is looking at the nutritional value of varieties of legume for home grown feed. It is bringing together plant breeders and growers, pig feed manufacturers and producers, under one umbrella to investigate the potential of using home grown pulses in the diets of pigs to reduce the environmental burdens associated with pig production and enhance the sustainability of the British pig industry.

Simon Kightley, oilseed and pulse specialist at NIAB, is coordinating the NIAB input into the project, which is focused on collating variety characters of both peas and beans which make them suitable for the UK pig feeding industry.

He said: “To start the project off we are looking at the nutritional value of varieties being harvested from this year’s Recommended List trials to see how much variation we already have in commercial varieties and whether there is a strong site effect on feed quality. For the coming season we will be putting out a call to breeders to send in a more diverse range of material to discover whether there are useful nutritional traits that are currently overlooked by a Recommended List system which is principally driven by the quest for improved yield and disease resistance. We want to get to a point where we can feed information back to the breeders and help them to re-direct their programs if this would strengthen the place of beans in rotations.

With these four projects, and additional new initiatives from NIAB and its partners to lever further research funding for key faba bean traits, the future has become a little brighter for the UK’s most important legume break crop.

Further information is available from Dr Jane Thomas

Or press consultant Ellee Seymour on 01353 648564, or 07939 811961