Don’t feed the astronauts baked beans! by Andrew Ormerod in conversation with Colin Leakey

Common beans Phaseolus vulgaris are the most important grain legume for human nutrition in the world feeding around 300 million people around the world – particularly in Latin America and Africa – where they are often labelled ‘Meat of the Poor’.   They are not only a good source of protein but also a good source of calories. Colour of food can play a role in nutrition as this story about yellow beans reveals……

This story is about nutrition, biodiversity, bio piracy and one man’s quest to breed a little yellow bean to conquer flatulence.

The beginning of the story 1969

Colin Leakey (1) has had an interesting career dealing with some unusual crops around the world, including minor crops, which he describes as “funnies”. He has spent a large chunk of his career involved with tropical agriculture and as a bean and pea breeder.

Our story starts in Uganda in the 1960’s when Colin was working as a Phaseolus bean breeder at Makerere University. Makerere was at the time a centre of excellence for human nutrition, the principles that ‘breast is best’ for human babies and importance of fibre in the diet came out of work at this university. Colin was approached by a nutritionalist who was looking for a solution to improve babies nutrient intake. Bean puree was one possibility but unfortunately it gave the babies wind and diarrhea. The emphasis of Colin’s bean breeding work had been on increasing yields up to then, but this challenge got him thinking about ways of overcoming the problem of digestibility.

So why do some beans give you wind? After all, as Colin says it, affects everyone!  Legumes have seeds rich in protein, but contain a range of anti-nutritional compounds. These include compounds that cause wind by preventing the digestion in the small intestine of some food components which can be turned into gas by bacteria in the lower gut. Colin also explains while the principal gasses such as methane have no smell, unfortunately the passage of gasses that are non smelly can carry other smells that are often present. The presence of many anti-nutrients in seeds may be beneficial to plants in nature, since they may discourage the seeds being eaten by wildlife.

Colin came across a research project from NASA in the 1960’s which was looking into the possibility of providing astronauts in space with baked beans. He wondered if this was wise if the beans could produce inflammable gas.  After three years of research and much complicated equipment to measure flatulence the scientists involved in this project came up with the conclusion that beans weren’t good space food.  Colin points out that the Ugandan mothers shared an interesting dilemma with NASA planners. Don’t feed astronauts or for that matter babies baked beans, unless they can be made more digestible. But how to start?

Ten years on 1979

Colin’s breakthrough happened in Chile in 1979. He visited a Mapuchi Indian market in Temuco, where he observed that pale yellow coloured bean were nearly double the price of the other beans. On making enquiries about the difference in price, the market store holder rubbed her stomach indicated that the yellow bean was special because it didn’t cause stomach troubles.  Colin thought that the seed colour could be related to the beans’ digestibility. He remembered that other yellow coloured foods such as turmeric had beneficial digestive qualities. Colin understood the inheritance of bean colour. Rather than use the Chilean beans, which were not well adapted, he set out to breed his own similar yellow coloured beans.  He used North temperate adapted parental lines instead to achieve his aims.  He recognising two parents that between them contain the set of recessive genes that he could combine in a new pure variety using traditional breeding methods.

Any breeding method requires means of testing and verifying its outcome.  He applied for financial support for his work to test the new lines for flatulence potential using the new portable flatometer he had invented. – but there was a condition in order to get a grant he would have to patent his new method (which was an incredibly cheap and simple idea using items that could be bought on the high street for very little money), which he did in due course. This caused quite a stir. Two of the lines he bred were appropriately named ‘Prim’ and ‘Proper’, during the development process he had to carry out balanced nutritional trials comparing conventional beans with the new anti flatulent lines. Well, as Colin was working on a shoestring budget, he decided to carry out comprehensive nutritional trials on himself using his newly invented portable flatometer and have his results and methods peer group reviewed. He presented his findings at a scientific meeting and proudly produced his portable flatometer at the end of his talk and said he had been collecting a sample of gas while presenting his paper!

1989 onwards…….

Time moved on and there were other developments on the yellow bean front. An American lady who had relatives in Mexico knew from talks Colin had given on many local radio stations in America that yellow beans from the Pacific State of Sinalowa, in Mexico, were likely also to be tasty and more digestible than many common beans in the USA. She set up a business importing and selling beans from Sinalowa and started to do rather well.

About the same time an entrepreneur in the state of Colorado, heard about these importations and decided that he might be rather clever if he took out a patent for yellow beans sold in the USA and other parts of North America. He imported a few yellow beans from Mexico, grew them under his own conditions for a short time and then amazingly was granted a patent by the U.S. patent officer in Washington. The patent covered the particular bean variety he brought in from Mexico and now claimed as his own discovery and an extension to this patent covered all beans of the same yellow colour.   He then demanded royalty payments from the lady bringing in beans from Mexico!

Up to 2009.

Colin was told of these extraordinary events when attending an International bean meeting in Calgary Canada. By this time his own yellow beans had been trialled by scientists in the University of Kentucky and his objectives and breeding program were quite well-known to a number of American bean scientists. Indeed the beans and gas story was quite a talking point. Colin and his American friend’s advised that while the patent stood any attempt to market his new beans in the USA would attract a demand for royalties. Prominent members of the international bean community including the director of CIAT (2) and the professor of plant breeding at Michigan State University as well as the Canadian anti biopiracy organisation joined forces to over turn the Washington patent .

It can take many years to review and revoke questionable patents in the USA and multiple appeals and delays contribute to this and the ‘Enola’ yellow bean case was no exception.  The final ruling to revoke the patents happened in 2009.   In the end physical similarities of this bean to existing yellow beans was backed up by molecular biology evidence from  various laboratory studies showed that the ‘Enola’ beans originated in Mexico.  They had been bred in Mexico legitimately using Mexican and Peruvian parentage, in a way this was a case of  a double biopiracy!  Moreover the extension of the patent covering all yellow beans was over turned because there were illustrations of  a yellow bean variety called Eureka in a book ‘American Varieties of Beans’ published in 1908 (3). It was described in full and also known as Genter’s  Sulphur,  Sulphur colored bean  or California Creme.  This earlier yellow bean was introduced in 1893 by Ford Seed Company and illustrated in colour on Plate 2  fig d2 in the book.  Colin showed me the book with the colour plate clearly showing a yellow bean illustrated around 100 years ago and this was evidence to clearly prove prior art  (i.e. information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality).

Colin’s new beans are in fact from totally different origin having no Central or South American parentage and could in no way at all be considered piratical.  As far as Colin’s ‘Prim’ bean is concerned – it has found favour with organisations formulating food for older people – but I am sure that there are many more applications for this tasty little bean that haven’t been as yet tapped. Its commercial development was held back while the patent problem was being resolved in the USA In addition there is a need to find an approach to marketing which is not considered frivolous.


(1)                                                                            (2)

(3) Jarvis, C.D. (1908) American Varieties of Beans, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University, [1908]

Thanks to Colin Leakey, and also Nathan Russel and Matthew Blair at CIAT who I have been in contact with about a range of bean related issues over the years.

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013


About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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