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Dry Bean Research Balances Agronomy and Quality


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New varieties must combine field performance with canning and cooking quality.

Parthiba Balasubramanian, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

WHEN A CONSUMER opens a can of Canadian beans, whether they realize it or not, they’re gazing at a thing of beauty. Every bean in the can needs to be comparably sized, evenly coloured and pleasingly shaped, with nary a broken bean in sight.

This simple but essential quality experience is only possible because of the hard work of bean breeders across Canada. In one aspect of their work, breeders like Alberta’s Parthiba Balasubramanian develop varieties in different classes of dry beans that perform well in the field.

That’s not all. In addition, no new Canadian bean variety is registered without painstaking research into its canning and cooking qualities. With Canada being the fourth largest exporter of dry beans worldwide, and more than 98% of dry bean production consumed as food, there’s a lot resting on getting it right.

In 2018, a five-year funding commitment from the Canadian Pulse Science Research Cluster was announced, ensuring Balasubramanian’s long-standing work will continue. His task? Ensure Canadian dry beans meet exacting processor and consumer expectations.

QUALITY IN, QUALITY OUT

“A seed that’s nice going into the can usually comes out nice after canning as well,” said Balasubramanian, Dry Bean Breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Lethbridge. “In the early part of the breeding program, the focus is primarily on the seed quality: size, shape, colour and seed coat.”

As Balasubramanian explains, lines failing to meet these quality demands are discarded early in the process. Only advanced lines of cultivars that have been through six years or more of development and breeding will face the final hurdle.

Harvesting 200-gram bean samples for each cultivar, Balasubramanian and his team work cooperatively with the Ontario Pulse Crop Committee on a project to cook, can and evaluate lines being considered for registration.

“For example, hard seeds don’t absorb water easily but they will absorb water during the canning process,” Balasubramanian said. “When they absorb water inside the can, they cause plumping that might break the seed during processing.”

Of dry bean cultivars that enter the canning and cooking evaluation program, only a select few will have what it takes to move on to registration trials. Those cultivars are high-yielding, disease resistant — and, in the case of Manitoba — early maturing, along with the consistent quality that food processors and consumers demand. Many are tested, but few are chosen.

So, when an Manitoba grower puts a new dry bean variety in the ground, they can be sure it’s going to be agronomically sound and produce high-quality food.

“I work with a great team here,” Balasubramanian said. “We have good germplasm and good funding. We want to make sure that any improvement we make is directed back to the growers. I am confident we will do that.”