Breeding a British baked bean

Baked beans in tomato sauce / Source: Mk2010 - Wikimedia Commons

Baked beans in tomato sauce / Source: Mk2010 - Wikimedia Commons - Credit: Archant

Did you know that every single one of the baked beans we eat in this country is imported from abroad? Researchers at the University of Warwick are on a quest to breed a better bean that’s 100% British, and Lisa Martin takes a look at why.

Beans on toast / Source: F7wiki - Wikimedia Commons

Beans on toast / Source: F7wiki - Wikimedia Commons - Credit: Archant

This is actually quite a difficult article for me to write because, to tell the truth, I loathe baked beans! The taste, the smell, the weird orange colour… Let’s just say I’m not a fan!

Despite my personal feelings however, I appreciate that lots of people do like baked beans. In fact, as a nation, we spend over £300 million a year on tins of tomato-sauce covered beans, and 1.7 million cans of them are eaten in the UK every single day!

As one of your five-a-day, baked beans are healthy, filling, and (allegedly) tasty. At just a few pence for a can they also make a very cheap meal and have become a staple of the British diet.

But just how British are baked beans? The answer is: not British at all!

In fact, whether they are Heinz, HP, or the supermarket’s own brand, the only ingredient in a tin of beans that is sourced from the UK is the water used to make the sauce – all of the other ingredients are imported from abroad, with most of the beans being sourced from as far afield as Canada. That’s a lot of food miles!

The problem is that the particular species of bean used for baked beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, also known as the navy bean or the haricot bean, does not grow well in the British climate. Our springs are too cold for the seeds to germinate and develop properly, and the plants cannot reach maturity before the damp autumn months set in.

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But a team of scientists at the University of Warwick has a plan to breed a better baked bean – one that can be grown on home soil.

PhD student Andrew Tock, together with his supervisors Professor Eric Holub and Dr Guy Barker, is using genetic mapping techniques to sequence the DNA of different varieties of bean in a quest to find the ideal bean genes. He is particularly looking for genes that cause certain varieties to be more tolerant to the cold, and more resistant to a common bean disease called halo blight.

Once the perfect bean genes have been found, the researchers can then use traditional selective breeding methods to cross-breed the desired traits into a new variety of British bean – one that will hopefully be the perfect accompaniment to a jacket potato and cheese, hot buttered toast, or even a full English breakfast.

Watch the short video about the University of Warwick research project at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivmCOShd77w&feature=youtu.be

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Main image courtesy of: Mk2010 - Wikimedia Commons

Sub image courtesy of: F7wiki - Wikimedia Commons

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