Maintaining The Alberta Bean Advantage

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Having the best of both worlds is challenging for most, but it’s especially so for bean breeders. No one knows that better than Parthiba Balasubramanian, research scientist and dry bean breeder at the Lethbridge Research Centre, who is trying to achieve both early maturity and high yield.

Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan have the shortest growing seasons for dry beans in all of Canada, so Balasubramanian and his team are aiming to breed a variety with both characteristics. “We’ve pushed for it but usually early maturity means poor yield, so we need to select for appropriate traits,” says Balasubramanian.

Alberta is the third-largest province in dry bean production acres, behind Manitoba and Ontario. Alberta grows five of the fourteen types of beans produced in Canada. Southern Alberta is a prime place for growing beans because if beans can dry out in the

“Our main priority in developing new varieties is to reduce risk for growers, including improved disease resistance”

fall, they retain their seed coat colour better, says Balasubramanian. Colour is an important grading factor when trading dry beans. Furthermore, beans typically use less water than corn or wheat, making it an efficient crop under irrigation.

Balasubramanian has worked with dry beans since 1996. After he completed undergraduate work in India, he moved to Canada in 1995 to pursue post-graduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan, which is known for its pulse crop breeding program. As an employee of Agriculture Canada for the past five years, Balasubramanian spent four years in Morden, Man., and has been in Lethbridge for more than a year. He is the only dry bean breeder in Lethbridge, succeeding 29-year veteran breeder Dr. Hans-Henning Muendel.

Being the only bean breeder at the Lethbridge Research Centre, Balasubramanian collaborates with colleagues in other areas to obtain germplasm and other information required for his breeding projects.

In the last 10 years, growers in Alberta have mainly used the same five varieties: AC Redbond (small red), AC Polaris (Great Northern), AC Black Diamond (black bean), Island (pinto), Resolute (Great Northern). Some are commercially grown, while others are in pedigreed seed production. Two more varieties are expected by next year, pending CFIA approval, says Balasubramanian,

REDUCING PRODUCTION RISK

He says sometimes new bean varieties are named for a location while more often than not the breeder just hears something interesting and waits to apply the name to a new variety.

“Our main priority in developing new varieties is to reduce risk for growers, including improved disease resistance,” says Balasubramanian. “We want to give producers more options. In addition to selecting for early maturity, high yield and disease resistance, we also select for upright growth habit because it makes the beans easier to harvest. We want plants to stand upright, but wind is always an issue.”

There are three main diseases that plague bean growers in southern Alberta. Common bacterial blight and white mould are the biggest diseases in this area. White mould also affects other specialty crops such as canola and potatoes. Both Resolute and Island offer better resistance to white mould than the other three varieties.

The third disease affecting southern Alberta beans is bacterial wilt, also a seed-bound disease. It is similar to common bacterial blight, as it causes seed discolouration. Breeders have been able to develop some resistance to bacterial wilt. Resolute, for instance, has resistance to all three strains of bacterial wilt – yellow, orange and purple.

Seed quality is determined by seed coat colour. If beans are brightly coloured, they speak “fresh” to the consumer, says Balasubramanian. “You want a variety to hold its colour as long as possible.”

Under low light, beans will darken after two to three months. Some varieties will hold their colour as long as six months to a year, depending on environmental conditions, but all lines will darken eventually.

HEALTHY DIET

When he first came to Canada, he says he was surprised by the low consumption of beans in North America. “Pulses are a very important part of the diet in India,” he says. On average, a person in Canada consumes about two pounds of beans per year, while the average Mexican consumes 15 to 20 pounds. Beans are a healthy part of a person’s diet, and Balasubramanian says in the future breeders may be able to breed beans with increased antioxidants, minerals and other nutrients.

This past year, dry bean breeding at Lethbridge Research Centre was successful despite poor growing conditions. Trait selection occurs in the field, so the research trials must be done under real growing conditions, says Balasubramanian. Beans are traditionally a tropical crop, so if you want to grow beans in a temperate climate, then there is a need for different breeders in specific areas.

The bean breeding program at Lethbridge Research Centre is funded through the federal government, Alberta Pulse Growers, Viterra, Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund and Alberta Agricultural Research Institute.

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