Friday 9 March 2012

Mean Beans

Beans are magical things, as every child and storyteller knows. You can never tell what will happen when you plant one, where the plant might lead you, how it can turn your life upside down. As we face the monolithic giants of agri-business, peak oil and climate change, the wise fools amongst us might indeed, like Jack, be swapping our cows for a handful of coloured beans. Josiah Meldrum tells us why.

A little over three years ago the Transition Norwich Food Group began meeting and planning; several hundred people joined in conversations about the future of food in the city. There were and are no simple answers but the Food Group, led by Tully Wakeman of East Anglia Food Link, decided to investigate the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of the current system and explore some possible solutions.

Tully's report, Can Norwich Feed Itself? (which became the food chapter in theTransition action plan for the city – you can read it here), highlighted a range of issues around resource use and agriculture: in particular the use of fertilisers that have been dug from finite mines or synthesised using increasingly scarce and expensive natural gas, the fragility of just in time distribution systems reliant on big regional distribution centres and fossil fuel based transport systems. He also identified a lack of skills and local production capacity in specific areas: for example where are the mills and millers in Norwich?

There was good news too; it turns out - perhaps unsurprisingly - that Norwich is geographically well placed to feed itself and that it would not take all that much land to do so. But to do it, and to break the dependence on high-energy inputs, would mean changes: dietary changes, changes in land use patterns and in agricultural practice.

Of course Tully wasn't suggesting that Norwich should feed itself, it's probably neither necessary nor desirable, but the thought experiment raised some critical questions about the footprint of our western diet, our reliance on a small set of finite inputs, the global corporations that control them and our day-to-day connection with the food system.

The Food Group's work led to the creation of three linked projects - mini experiments designed to address some of these problems and demonstrate what a more resilient local food system might look and taste like: Norwich FarmShare connects people very directly to the land, builds skills and shortens supply chains; the Norwich Mill will, on a small scale, show how a local wheat to flour to bread supply chain might work - and lead to the creation of a Norwich Loaf.

And then there are beans (and peas), which are essential in the new land use, farming and diet mix outlined in the report. In fact Tully’s report could summed up in 5 words: less meat, more local beans.

Field beans, a type of fava bean much like a small broad bean, which are commonly planted to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere making it available to other plants, are grown widely in East Anglia (and around half a million tonnes are grown in the UK as a whole every year). Aside from fertility building they make great animal feed and are used by livestock farmers in the region and further afield – particularly by those who want to avoid using GM soya. Fava beans make great human food too, but initially it appeared that none were grown in East Anglia for human consumption: we couldn't have been more wrong. In fact tonnes are grown and processed for export; mostly to North Africa and the Middle East. It seems that while we've lost our taste for the humble fava bean in the UK (in preference for legumes like soya, pinto, lentil and chick peas which are very hard to grow and dry here), the rest of the world still loves them whether as ful medames, houmous, dhal, falafel, crisp snacks or for use in a wide range of stews and soups.

The great fava bean rediscovery starts here!

In the next few weeks you'll start seeing little half kilo bags of a fava bean called Victor all over Norwich. They'll be dried, split and will have the outer skin removed making them easier to prepare and use. The packs will come with cooking instructions and links to a website full of recipes and cooking tips. The website, as well a beautiful postage paid return postcard that you'll find in each pack, will ask you what you thought of the beans and how you used them.

If you pop in to a Norwich FarmShare share day at the end if March or are part of the Low Carbon Cookbook team you'll be able to pick up packs free, they'll also be available in a selection of Norwich shops. Josiah Meldrum

If you'd like to find out more about the beans and how they fit into Transition Norwich and East Anglia Food Link's Norwich Resilient Food Project (a programme of work that includes Norwich FarmShare) you can email Nick or Josiah: or have a look at the bean website (we're still building it at the moment - but it should be ready in a week or two).

Runner beans in hand ready for storage over winter; postcard of Victor beans; Charlotte, Mark and Josiah, sitting on sacks of field beans.


  1. This is brilliant stuff! I have just come indoors from planting a dozen precious heritage red crimson broad beans - the first seeds sown this year - and I am really excited about them and all kinds of beans.

    We definitely need many more beans to enable protein consumption to move away from animal proteins to veggie sources such as beans or mushrooms and as you point out from overseas beans to local ones.

    I planted loads of field beans in the autumn of 2010 as green manure, but when they came up and flowered last year I had to leave them in place to produce beans which we duly ate and loved.

    I saved plenty of seed and re-sowed again last autumn. The plants have overwintered okay, although some were cut back by snow and frost they sprouted again from the base, and some are now starting to produce flower buds. Being so hardy I am sure that they are potentially really useful.

    Spurred on by this I am going to stuff as many beans as I possibly can amongst my perennial veggies, along the fences round the property and will also try growing some tall runners up trees.

  2. Hi Anni,

    Would you swap some seeds, please? Just off the top of my head, I have seeds of amaranth, carrot, land cress, quinoa, sorrel, tomato, and others. Please email me at


  3. Hi Anni,

    Thanks for your comment - sounds like you have an amazing garden (no wonder Erik is after some seeds!)

    The beans you're talking about are much more challenging to grow, dry and store on a larger scale, though it is being done in the UK. As part of my research for this project I visited a community that feeds around 40 adults from its own production including at least 1 or 2 bean meals a week all year round. They grow 6 or 7 'high status' bean varieties including pinto and black kidney. Whole plants are pulled up when they seem as dry as they'll get then they're hung in barns for further drying. Finally the whole plants are put through a big garden shredder this separates the bean from the pod remarkably efficiently and does little damage to the seeds.