Skip to main content
Cooking with tepary beans. Credit: Bioversity International/N. Amaya

This holiday season, Bioversity International tells the story of the nutritious and resilient, yet small and underutilized tepary bean, and the studies done to bring it back to the dinner tables of farmers at risk of food and nutrition insecurity.

Some traditions are worth reviving. As the festive season approaches, many people around the world tend to revive their culture’s traditions, particularly when it comes to the dinner table. To welcome the New Year, ‘lucky’ foods such as grapes, lentils, peas or beans – symbolic of coins – are commonly consumed in hopes of better fortunes to come. This holiday season, Bioversity International tells a story of reviving a traditional and similarly small and round but far less common food: the tepary bean.

Tale of the Tepary

Imagine a seed that requires very little water, or very little of anything, to then grow into a large, nutritious, bean-producing plant. Now imagine a poor farmer cultivating this treasure while the rest of the world is none the wiser. This is not the story of a magic bean that grows into a giant beanstalk, nor is the farmer a poor young boy from England, who climbs it to discover hidden treasures. Still, the almost forgotten small tepary beans are so strong and resistant, and pack in so many nutrients, that its custodian, a smallholder farmer from Guatemala, believes that they really are almost magical and a hidden treasure.

Once upon a time, between the southwestern United States and the northern border of Guatemala, tepary beans were widely consumed. Many say they were used since ancient times as a vegetable, dry bean and a fodder crop. But now, at a time when they are possibly needed the most, they are at risk of withering into obscurity.

Owing to their potential for diversifying bean production and improving resilience, Bioversity International researchers and partners set on discovering where tepary beans are still being produced, the reasons behind their neglect, and their market potential and prospects.

The land of beans

This part of the world, between southwestern United States and Guatemala, is marked by its high climatic variability that has been further aggravated in recent years by the presence of long periods of drought. These problems are particularly severe in the Dry Corridor of Guatemala, a semi-arid region characterized by frequent periods of drought, heat and poor soil. The changing climate in combination with increased incidence of pests and diseases, are challenging the production of the common bean, an important staple food in the area, which could result in very serious effects for food and nutrition insecurity of the population.

The holy grail of beans

The hero of this story could very well be the lost tepary bean. It is well-adapted to arid conditions, exhibiting a high level of drought, heat and cold tolerance. The beans mature quickly and are very nutritious, full of fiber, protein, iron and carbohydrates. In comparison to the common bean, the tepary has shown greater tolerance to common bacterial blight and outperforms the common bean by at least 50% in hot environments.

But to find the tepary bean proved no small feat.

Thirty years ago, researchers from the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala gathered 36 tepary bean cultivars in the southwestern coast of Guatemala. They found the beans to be widely used for the preparation of traditional food recipes typical of the surveyed regions, especially among Maya Quiché, Mam and Tzutuhil ethnic groups. However, when they returned to the same regions just two years ago, they were not able to find any tepary bean variety.

Earlier this year, Bioversity International Gender and Value Chain Specialist, Nadezda Amaya decided to embark on the search for the tepary once again. With the help of two of the researchers from the Universidad de San Carlos – Dr Otzoy and Dr España – Amaya identified an area in Guatemala where the tepary bean might still have cultural continuity.

Amaya and Dr España decided to revisit villages and farmers in the Department of San Marcos to see whether the tepary was still being grown and used. Hours of wandering through hot crowded food markets and small villages yielded various varieties and species of dry beans, but the tepary remained elusive.

It was not until the final site visit that Señor Arriaga emerged from his shed with a bag of small speckled seeds, a tepary variety that had been saved on his farm for generations.

Señor Leonardo Arriaga

“…It is a delicious and cheap bean,” claimed Leonardo Arriaga, a famer who lives with his wife in the El Sitio community, department of San Marcos in Guatemala, close to the Mexican border. He grows peanuts, sweet potato, chaya, malanga, cassava and some fruits, but his most important crops are beans and maize.

Señor Arriaga is one of the few people in his community who still produces tepary beans, locally known as escumite. He uses them as one would the common dry bean to prepare typical Guatemalan dishes such as frijoles colados and frijoles voltados. “Personally, I do not see any difference in taste between the tepary bean and the common bean that we eat everyday,” he says.

When his neighbours are facing particularly rough times, Señor Arriaga is known to gift them with some of his tepary seeds. Occasionally he will try and sell the beans but, according to him, most consumers assume they are of low quality given their small size and wrinkled surface.

The production and consumption of tepary beans in this area have been decreasing due to the erosion of traditional food cultures, and lack of consumer familiarity and knowledge of the bean. Consumers are unattracted to the beans’ colour, wrinkled surface and different taste. There are also some production issues such as low yields and thin pods that fail to protect the beans from water and worms.

However, Señor Arriaga maintains that producing the tepary bean is not that difficult and that the taste is actually delicious and not all that different from the common bean. He also believes that the tepary beans' production costs are lower as they require less care and water.

He thus continues to produce it due to its drought tolerance, pest resistance and fast maturation. He produces tepary beans at the end of the rainy season; saves one third as seed, another third for consumption and what is left he takes to the markets.

Tepary turnaround

The in situ conservation of the tepary by Señor Arriaga reinforces the role custodian farmers play in maintaining agrobiodiversity for preserving genetic resources, and the complementary knowledge necessary to develop best practices for production and consumption. Seeds purchased from Señor Arriaga have been integrated into a local seed saver network and provided to a custodian farmer for test plots in the Dry Corridor.

Tepary beans could be a good alternative for food security, especially in the Dry Corridor, where drought has become such a limiting factor for growing common beans. They can complement the common bean during the months when harvests are low.

To this end, Bioversity International and partners have conducted production and tasting trials in the Dry Corridor as well as marketing consultations and surveys to identify opportunities for tepary beans to enter the common bean value chain in Guatemala. The trials showed encouraging results. Despite its limitations, common bean value chain actors showed keen interest in the tepary bean, especially for its heat and drought tolerance traits, nutritional content and ability to achieve higher yields under stress conditions compared with common beans.

Another very encouraging result came from the survey, which showed that the food industry is willing to carry out initial controlled trials to analyze the industrial potential of tepary beans and ascertain whether this crop can meet some of those basic needs that the industry requires, such as consistency, size and nutritional content after cooking.

There remains a great deal of more research to be done to assess and promote tepary beans' potential as an alternative and complementary source of food for farmers in rural areas affected by severe drought.

Some cultural traditions are indeed worth reviving, and the consumption of the tepary bean is one of them. As a matter of fact, Bioversity International is also working on a tepary bean recipe book, currently under revision.

For now, the tale closes with a happy ending. After all, perhaps for some it is the tepary bean that will prove to be the ‘lucky’ food next New Year’s Eve.