Why beans are key to accelerating a change to our food system

(Last Updated On: 8 August 2023)

By Paul Newnham, Devex

In the Kateera village, Uganda, farmer Marycian Nakaniako often planted popular crops such as maize, coffee, or plantains. When a seed producers’ cooperative offered her a new variety of bean seeds to try, she accepted the opportunity.

The results were life changing. Not only did she see an increase in her family income, but also a significant improvement in yield — more than doubling the harvest — which ultimately opened doors and opportunities for herself and her children.

For her, the greatest achievement has been not only constructing a new house and purchasing more land, but being able to educate her disabled daughter. Her story is just one of many who have benefited from the positive potential of beans.

 The value of beans

At a time when many around the world are feeling the consequences of multiple global crises, from food insecurity, to weather extremes and the increased cost of living, beans prove to be a simple viable solution to some of the world’s most pressing issues.

With 9.2% of the world population facing hunger, and predictions that 600 million will be undernourished by 2030, eating more beans can improve access to key proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals for many around the world.

Beans contain two to three times more fiber than whole grains, and at least double the protein content of many common grains. Plus, beans prove to be an affordable, cost-effective option — and their long shelf life means they can be stocked and saved.

The value of beans in the food system goes far beyond the impact once they hit your plate — but rather it starts from the beginning, from seed and production.

Faced with major climate challenges, producers and suppliers must look for sustainable agricultural practices. Here, beans prove to be a mighty solution as well. Beans release fewer greenhouse gasses than many other crops and livestock, in fact legumes — including chickpeas, lentils and beans — generate up to 250 times less greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein than meats such as beef and lamb.

Beans help to improve soil and water quality — as they reduce the need for fertilizer through their nitrogen fixing quality, translating to about $8-$12 billion in savings to the farming industry. Bean plants can withstand harsh climates making them a great resource for reaching those most left behind while limiting their carbon footprint.

Maximizing potential 

The beauty of beans as a solution is that it doesn’t involve recreating the wheel, it’s simply a question of maximizing the potential of this tiny but mighty seed.

Across cultures and continents, beans have always been a staple food eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have been a critical core commodity throughout time. Beans offer something that is good for people and the planet.

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An ambitious campaign, Beans is How, which is supported by the SDG2 Advocacy Hub and the Good Food for All campaign, aims to double the global consumption of beans, as well as peas, lentils, and other pulses by 2028. Through a joint mission to make beans more desirable, visible and exciting, the Beans is How campaign is working alongside a coalition of over 50 varied organizations, showing the cross-sector collaboration that is possible when you dream big.

For the many partners who have joined, including Bush Brothers & Company, Google, Kraft Heinz, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, AGRA, EAT Foundation, United Nations Foundation, Unilever, Scaling Up Nutrition, and many more, increasing bean consumption is no longer an “if,” but a “must.”

Trends and data

In early September, Beans is How will release its “Theory of Change,” outlining a strategy for achieving its ambitious vision.

This will include directing investment and resources to create demand and increase bean consumption, while advocating for a series of enabling policies to improve bean production supply and support for smallholder farmers, thereby improving their livelihoods. It also includes a call for better data and more research into consumption habits, as well as societal norms or behaviors that may drive shifts in food trends.

As the protein plant industry continues to grow, there is huge potential to create new markets for pulses producers and to ensure more convenient and affordable food options for consumers — research, retail, and marketing play a big role.

Science and increased investment in agricultural research is crucial in order to help farmers adapt to the climate crisis. Existing seed breeding programs, such as through the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance with CGIAR, demonstrate the high return on investment.

With 657 new marketable, nutritious, resilient and high-yielding bean varieties, they are reaching more than 37 million farmers, 58% of whom are women, with access to improved seeds, increasing yields and positively impacting the lives of many.


In an effort to mainstream beans and bring them into the limelight, Beans is How has launched the #beansonthemenu challenge, a call to action to restaurants, caterers, cafés, schools, and other food providers everywhere to ensure beans are represented on their menus.

As chefs bridge the gap between farm and fork, they are natural advocates to promote the versatility of pulses, promoting pulse biodiversity and unique cooking methods that push the culinary imagination about how pulses are consumed. Chefs have the opportunity to influence food trends around the world, shifting perceptions and influencing small to big stakeholders. 

Beans on the agenda 

With 2023 marking the midpoint in the course of the implementation of the 2030 agenda, accelerated progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is needed.

We must look for simple, accessible, climate-smart solutions. The remainder of 2023 presents multiple key opportunities to incorporate beans into our multilateral plans to achieve the SDGs, including at the 78th Session of the U.N General Assembly, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP 28.

Beans is How will continue to promote the value of beans as a key contributor to achieving wins in food security, nutrition, climate and inequalities across the world

Everyone, everywhere has a role to play in elevating beans to their rightful place. For a farmer like Nakaniako, a simple bean can shape a family’s future. For the rest of the world, the tiny but mighty bean has the exponential power to make the shift towards a healthier future for people and the planet.

This is an editorially independent piece produced as part of Devex’s Food Secured series, which is funded by partners.

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