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Nuna, the popping bean: Patent pops off row

Nuna beans

May 23, 2001: The nuna bean (pronounced noonya), a thick-skinned variety of the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, is grown in the high Andes at 2-3,000 meters above sea level. Found at pre-Inca archaeological sites, the bean is a popular staple in many areas of Ecuador and Peru.

The ease with which the beans are cooked may, in part, explain their popularity. At the altitudes where Nuna beans are cultivated, water boils at a temperature closer to 90 than 100 degrees Celcius. This makes cooking with boiling water a slow process. Nuna beans, however, are not boiled; they are heated in a thin layer of oil for 2-4 minutes, which causes the bean to "pop." The exploded beans have a flavor reminiscent of peanuts and a consistency much like popcorn.

Over the centuries, at least 33 varieties of nuna bean have been developed. They come in several colors; especially popular are the grey and white speckled (nuna azul) and light red (nuna mani) varieties. There is also a white nuna bean found at Cajabamba called the pigeon's egg, or huevo de paloma, which is unrivalled in popping, taste and crunchiness.

The bean is susceptible to both frost and high temperatures. It needs abundant moisture, short day lengths and approximately 200 days to crop. Because of these restrictive cultural requirements, production of nuna beans outside highland tropical areas has not been conducted successfully on a large scale.

Now, though, a food processing company in the United States, Appropriate Engineering, has received US patent 6,040,503 on March 31, 2000, for a hybrid of the nuna bean and the common field bean. The hybrid grows at temperate latitudes, while retaining the distinguishing characteristics of the nuna parent. The "inventors," Mark Sterner and Jeffrey Ehlers, have also acquired World Intellectual Property Organisation Patent WO99/11115 under the Patent Co-operation Treaty and have indicated they will apply for patents in another 121 countries.

Beans mean bucks
Mark Sterner owns Inland Empire Foods, a food processor specializing in dehydrated legumes for the organic food market in the US. Thus, he is well placed to supply the potentially lucrative US market with hybrid nuna beans. Annual US bean consumption averages 9 pounds per person. In 1998, 3 billion pounds of beans were harvested with a crop value of over $600 million.

Patent absurdity
Elders of the indigenous Andean people met in February 2001 for their traditional Quechua tribunal, where they deliberated on the US Patent. They demanded that the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, based in Cali, Columbia, uphold it's obligation under a UN agreement to keep farmer-bred bean varieties in the public domain. The US researchers had obtained their germ plasm from public collections of beans supplied by farmer-breeders in the Andean region.

Alejandro Argumeda, co-ordinator of the Indigenous People's Biodiversity Network, says "it is absurd that a US company have patented a bean I've bean eating since my childhood." Jim Myers of Oregon State University, who has worked with nuna beans, says that such a patent could hamper research.

A Peruvian paradox
The USDA has supported research in Columbia on popping beans, anticipating that bean exports might replace the export of illicit cocaine. However, if the beans are grown on an industrial scale in the US, small-scale Andean farmers will have little opportunity to sustain an export market.

Two other Andean medicinal plant patents have been overturned following successful protests of indigenous Andean people. The first is Ahayuasca, (Banistopteris caapi), the principal component of a hallucinogenic brew used by the Incas in religious ceremonies. The second is quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), a protein-rich seed usually treated as a grain in cooking.

Edward Teague

edward@softwaresystemseurope.com


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