A new project to research lima beans to see if they can become more popular and can be grown in more areas has been developed between farmers, food scientists, and seed companies. The research is led by Sarah Dohle, former professor at Delaware Valley University and phaseolus curator for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), also commonly known as the butter bean, are a type of legume found in Meso- and South America. They are high in protein, fibre, iron, folate, and potassium. They were discovered in Peru (hence their name) and may have been the first plant that was brought up under civilization by the native farmers. They are also a sustainable food crop that can be grown in a variety of climates. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in lima beans as a plant-based protein in part due to the increasing popularity of vegan diets.

The four-year USDA-funded initiative involves various centres, including UC Davis, Clemson, University of Delaware, and UC Riverside, which will study lima beans, analyse traits, and identify genetic markers to enhance their qualities. Food scientists from Delaware Valley University and Iowa State University will conduct taste tests and consumer-preference surveys to pinpoint the most appealing characteristics of lima beans.

One of the challenges for lima beans in northern latitudes is their sensitivity to photoperiod, requiring long nights to trigger blossoming. It is hoped that, with genetic manipulation, Dohle and her collaborators can create a regional speciality, akin to the runaway success of the honey-nut squash (a winter squash hybrid developed from butternut and buttercup varieties).

The team believes that lima beans have the potential to become a major player in the plant-based protein market, and are confident that the improved lima beans that they are developing will appeal to a wide range of consumers.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.