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New high-iron beans were officially released in Colombia in June 2016.

They contain as much as 60% more iron than normal beans, and are intended to address the problem of iron deficiency in diets. Affecting up to 2 billion people globally, iron deficiency can lead to impaired cognitive and physical development in children, while anemia – often caused by iron deficiency – increases risks to women during childbirth.

In Colombia, iron deficiency affects up to 35 per cent of children under 12, with hotspots in the country’s Atlantic coast and Amazon regions. “This is the number one public health concern in the world in terms of the sheer number of people who suffer from it,” said Steve Beebe, leader of CIAT’s Bean Program, which was closely involved in the development of the two high-iron varieties released in the country in June. “These new beans should enable farmers to grow their own nutrition more effectively, and help efforts to tackle the problem of micronutrient deficiency at its core.”

Beans, a popular staple in Colombia, typically contain around 50 parts per million (ppm) of iron; the new varieties contain 82 ppm – about 60% more. They have also been bred to contain 50% more zinc – a micronutrient vital for a strong immune system. As well as being more nutritious, the new beans also produce good yields and are of the shape, size, and color preferred by farmers.

It is the first time biofortified beans have been released in the Andean zone of Colombia, with the departmental governments of Santander, Tolima, and Valle del Cauca also expressing interest in including high-iron beans in school feeding programs. Releases of high-zinc maize and high-zinc rice are scheduled to take place in the next year. Vitamin A cassava is also in the pipeline.

Beebe added that since beans are already a good source of protein and carbohydrates, the new varieties could be considered “superfoods.” The new beans were developed using a method called biofortification, which uses traditional breeding practices to increase the levels of important nutrients in staple crops.

How were the beans biofortified?

Screening more than 1,000 beans conserved in the CIAT genebank, Beebe and his team of bean breeders found several to contain high levels of iron. These beans were then crossbred with varieties popular in Colombia to ensure they were adapted to local conditions, and were of acceptable size, color, and taste for farmers and consumers. They are also as high yielding as local varieties, and able to tolerate major fungal and viral diseases. Their release in Santander follows extensive testing to ensure good yields and to confirm their nutrient concentration.

It is the first time biofortified beans have been released in the Andean zone of Colombia, with the departmental governments of Santander, Tolima, and Valle del Cauca also expressing interest in including high-iron beans in school feeding programs. Releases of high-zinc maize and high-zinc rice are scheduled to take place in the next year. Vitamin A cassava is also in the pipeline.

“It’s extremely encouraging to see so many governments around the world recognizing that biofortification is a tremendous tool to help improve the health of their people,” continued Beebe. “It’s a great moment for Colombia, for farmers, all of our research partners and, of course, the United Nations’ International Year of Pulses, which is helping raise awareness of the nutritional importance of these foods.”

The work was undertaken by Colombia’s National Federation of Cereal and Legume Growers (Fenalce), Foundation for Agricultural Research and Development (FIDAR), and CIAT, under the auspices of HarvestPlus, a global biofortification initiative jointly led by CIAT and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). HarvestPlus has already released a range of biofortified crops containing higher levels of key nutrients such as Vitamin A, iron, and zinc across the developing world. Its scientists won the World Food Prize 2016 for their work to improve the vitamin A content of orange-fleshed sweet potato.