Why Are Heirloom Beans Important?
Happy Year of Pulses! The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2016 the Year of Pulses, so I've decided to do a blog series discussing what pulses are and why they are important. This is just one of many posts discussing the magical world of beans and other pulses. To learn more check out some of my other posts here.
Why are beans important?
Beans are extraordinarily important for soil health because, like all legumes, a bacteria called rhizobium lives on their roots, pumping nitrogen back into the soil. This is why beans are often grown along with crops that are heavy on the nitrogen intake, either both in the same year or alternating years. This is why the three sisters technique of planting was so popular and successful; the beans provided nitrogen for the corn, the corn provided a place for the beans to grow, and the squash prevented weeds from outcompeting both. Without beans, the cultivation of corn, and many other grains, would be highly unsustainable, as the corn would deplete the soil of nutrients in just a handful of years and a new plot of land would have to be cleared.
Beans are also highly diverse. There are thousands of varieties of just new world beans in the United States alone and each one has special adaptations that allow it to survive in its environment. Some are extremely drought resistant, some are very cold hardy, and some are resistant to pests and diseases. As the climate changes, having biodiverse seed stock to choose from will be incredibly important in order to fill extreme and changing niches. Also, compared to other protein sources, beans require a very small amount of water to produce. On average, beans require only 43 gallons of water to produce a lb of beans, whereas a pound of beef requires 1,857 gallons! Some varieties are even more efficient than this, as well. As we begin to face water shortages, having foods like beans that do not use too much of this resource but are also very high in nutrients will become increasingly beneficial.
While not complete proteins, beans are very high in protein, some varieties, such as lupines even contain more protein by weight than red meat. They are also full of many other necessary nutrients. One of best parts about beans is that, once dried, they are extremely shelf stable. This is imperative in areas of the world where there are seasonal food shortages. Beans and their byproducts can also be fed to livestock, producing fertilizer, meat, and dairy products for a farmer. For some, these expensive value added foods, can make or break a business or even mean the difference between survival and starvation.
One of the most important qualities of beans, though, is their memory. Along with beans come recipes, stories, songs, agricultural practices, and traditions. Beans hold within them cultural memories and identities. By preserving heirloom beans, we are not only saving genetics or flavors, we are saving the memories of those who came before us. Beans are a vital food source for countless cultures around the world, especially the poor and oppressed. Beans are shared, prayed for, sung about, and danced upon. Bean stories are told on cold, winters eves as warm satisfaction spreads through all who listen. Beans are carried along through thick and thin. To lose a single variety is to lose 6,000 years, or more, of history forever. As we have ignored and mistreated those with less of a voice than us, so too have we neglected the quiet murmuration of their beans. Already, we have lost thousand of varieties. It is time that we learn from the parable of the bean and sow the ancestral seeds of humility again, out of respect, out of redemption.
What can I do to help preserve rare bean varieties?The best thing you can do for rare bean varieties is simply to eat them. Buy from local farmers and create a demand in the market so they continue to grow them. Many varieties are not available in bulk, but the good news is that you can buy thousands of varieties of rare seeds for $5 or less per packet and grow them yourself. Beans are very easy to grow and some can even be grown in containers, you just have to find the right beans for your area and circumstances. This may take a little bit of experimenting. There are many bean varieties available from seed catalogs but there are many more that are not, so if you really want to find the rare ones I would suggest partaking in seed swaps, whether at a local event or long distance through Seed Savers Exchange. It is currently $25 to become a member of Seed Savers. Once you are a member you can choose of thousands of varieties and request what you want from other members. If you have spare seed the next year you can even list it on the Seed Savers website and make it available for others who might be seeking it, but you do not need to offer seeds to be a member.
Disclaimer: This blog is just my own opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be completly accurate or complete, I'm only human, so do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog (seriously not very much at all guys). If you click on any of the links in my blog I may make money from it. I'm not sponsored by any of these people I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them.