Saskatoon researchers help unlock the potential of the fava bean – with 'huge ecological consequences'

The fava bean plant is high in protein, well-suited to growing in colder climates and capable of virtually eliminating the need for fertilizer.

However, it has one fatal flaw, according to the University of Saskatchewan — for an estimated 400 million people worldwide who are deficient in a certain enzyme, digesting fava beans can trigger the blood disorder, known as favism.

Now, U of S plant scientists are part of an international team who have identified a key step in how the plant produces the compounds vicine and convicine, according to a news release.

“Fava bean has been a neglected crop because of the favism issue,” Albert Vandenberg, a U of S plant breeder and geneticist and co-author of the research, said in the release.

“Now, we can reduce 99 per cent of the vicine and convicine, and using sequencing and genomics, we should be able to zero in, to shut it down, 100 per cent.”

The research has been published in the journal Nature Plants.

By identifying how the plant produces these compounds, new low vicine and convicine fava beans could be a new, high-value crop for farmers. In addition to being rich with protein, fava beans are exceptionally good at adding nitrogen to the soil.

“This is like a machine for replacing nitrogen fertilizer. It has huge ecological consequences in the future of agriculture, here and globally,” Vandenberg said in the release.

Fava beans are also consumed as a fresh vegetable and are generating interest from the food industry due to growing global demand for efficient, plant-based protein, according to the U of S.

Vandenberg expects seed supplies of fava beans without vicine and convicine in sufficient quantities for commercial production to be available in 2022.