Science and the future of food at Warwick Crop Centre: Part 1

By Sakeena Rajpal, GLOBUS Communications and Events Officer

Did someone say dinner for 67 million?

As a nation, food security is something that is always on our minds, even more so due to the plethora of issues such as Brexit, Covid-19, the Ukraine War and inflation- not forgetting climate change posing a significant risk to UK food production. 

Despite the UK having a successful agricultural industry, around 48% of our food consumed is imported.  With there being an urgent focus on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, higher levels of self-sufficiency would increase the sustainability and resilience of the UK’s food supply. 

This summer I had the opportunity to attend a guided tour of the internationally recognised Warwick Crop Centre (based on the Wellesbourne Campus and Part of the School of Life Sciences). Not only were there insights into their core research on: crop production systems, pest, disease and weed control, and plant sciences- but also opportunities to see this research being put to practice in industry. 

As someone who has a great interest in sustainable food systems it was inspiring to see how Warwick Crop Centre were able to put their research into practice to increase food security- not to mention seeing the incredible facilities. 

This series will delve into a few of the different areas of exciting research and trials at Warwick Crop Centre, all with the aim of increasing food security and supply. 

And what better way to start it off than by looking beyond a can of beans!

To be(an), or not to be(an)

Baked beans. A convenient and iconic British staple- also handily packed with protein and fibre. Whilst these beans are so strongly associated with British culture and diets, none of these beans (white haricot beans) we eat are actually grown in the UK. Most of our beans are imported from countries such as Canada, Ethiopia and the USA. 

This is what inspired the 2BHealthy Project. Inclusive to a large range of diets, the well-loved bean was ideal in helping to improve food systems in Britain. With funding from the MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food), researchers at the University of Warwick (led by Professor Eric Holub) have been developing new varieties of haricot beans that are commercially viable in Britain’s climate. 

Through a guided tour at Warwick Crop Centre I was introduced to ‘URBEANS’– varieties of common dry beans specifically bred to be grown in Britain’s climate. ‘Capulet’ is the first registered variety and is currently on trial in UK farms along with dry bean varieties ‘Godiva’ and ‘Olivia’. In terms of its agricultural potential, these legumes require a reduced fertilizer demand (as beans are a Nitrogen fixing crop, and fix nitrogen into the soil) reducing N20 emissions as well as excess fertilizer runoff. Furthermore, by having these beans grown locally in the UK greenhouse gas emissions from transport would greatly decrease. 

Figure 1: The varieties of beans being bred to grown in Britain

As a food ingredient, these beans are incredibly nutritious- containing sources of prebiotic dietary fibre, protein and iron. They are also minimally processed (as the beans cook quickly, reducing water and energy use). 

I can also testify to them being incredibly versatile and delicious, as I was given the opportunity to taste these new varieties of beans in many dishes.  We already all know that beans on toast or in an English breakfast are elite, but there are so many other great options!  From bean buttercream, brownies, to incredible stews and salsas, I was pleasantly surprised by how many dishes they could be incorporated in. 

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Figure 2: Beans incorporated in a variety of dishes and snacks including ( bean buttercream, salsa, barbecue bean stew, and bean salad)

It is clear that through incorporating scientific research with sustainable development, the 2BHealthy Project has great potential to steer the UK’s food system to one that has a strong closed loop system. This involves creating a food system that is not linear (from farmer to consumer), but instead circular, thinking about all the resources used to grown and supply food, and where to reduce waste and increase supply sustainably. 

Not only does a strong close loop food system benefit the planet, it also helps to contribute to increased physical health in local communities. ‘URBEANS’ are being used as a central ingredient in ‘Bean Meals’  a project supported by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) and the Food For Life programme. They are working closely with schools in Leicestershire and Coventry communities to support increased food knowledge and healthier diets within schools and in the home. Charlotte Long, Senior Programme Manager at Food for Life rightfully mentions how at a time ‘when the cost of living is hitting hard, and we all need to eat more mindfully and sustainably to protect the planet’, beans are cost friendly, versatile and tasty, and it will be exciting to see ‘the innovative new meals that will land on plates in school dining halls and home kitchens.’ 

Header image by Kangbch, via Pexels

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