I had an unusual May bank holiday this year. Curious to learn more about the incredible work of Professor Colin Leakey, his wife Susan and daughter Tamsin invited me to their family home in Lincolnshire for lunch.
Keen to continue the incredible legacy of her father, Tamsin had contacted me through the Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme. As an ethnobotanist and Northern England Seed Sovereignty Coordinator for the Programme, I couldn’t resist an invitation to enter the world of this plant breeding giant.
The musical fruit
Having spent many years in Mexico getting to know beautiful bean plants, originally domesticated and grown as part of the Mesoamerican milpa, I arrived for lunch ready to tuck in. I was slightly wary of the by-products of eating too many beans. I needn’t have worried, however, as I learnt that Professor Leakey had dedicated a good amount of time to developing fart-free beans, known by the variety names ‘Prim’ and ‘Proper’.
While on the surface the idea of fart-free beans is undoubtedly humorous, Tamsin pointed out Colin was a serious man on a serious mission to make plant proteins more digestible. This is highly valuable to those suffering from Chrones disease or others with more delicate constitutions. Indeed, it is also useful to add them to our diets to reduce meat consumption and to increase people’s intake of plant proteins instead. The health benefits of the progenitors of Colin’s ‘Prim’ and ‘Proper’ beans were such that they were often given to children, pregnant women and the elderly in Kenya. Colin crossed these beans in his breeding programme as they were easier to digest.
As lunch progressed, I learned that Colin’s fart-less beans were very much the tip of the iceberg when it came to his achievements.
Cradle of Life
Son of world-renowned Paleoarchaeologist, Louis Leakey, Colin grew up in Cambridge with his mother and sister before making his own way to Kenya and around the world as a plant breeder and advisor to farmers. His story of nearly 60 years of practical and applied academic research, spanning a great breadth and depth of interlinked topics, is nothing short of astonishing.
Colin traveled and worked in Africa, with French farmers and breeders, and visited remote Spanish mountain villages where farmers were still growing crops directly descended from plants brought back from the ‘New World’.
Wherever he went, he applied his skills in plant science and genetics to breed plant (and especially bean) varieties to suit different environments, whether that was East Africa or East Lincolnshire. He was dedicated to improving food security in Africa and to increase the amount of plant protein available in the UK through his beans.
Beans at home
Colin bred numerous varieties of bean for UK climates. His goal was to bring plant protein to the masses, vastly expanding the availability of healthy plant proteins available from UK growers. As awareness of the destructiveness of industrialised meat production and the many benefits of replacing meat consumption with plant protein become more well known, Colin’s work remains highly topical today.
Three promising varieties of bean bred and grown by Colin have now been trialed in the UK by farmers, growers and researchers. Specialist bean sellers Hodmedods have been producing Colin’s Stop beans, a bright red haricot variety, as tinned beans. Even Heinz and Raymond Blanc have tried and highly rated Colin’s Generatif bean. ‘Prim’ is still of great interest and currently being trialed for market gardeners wanting to fill the hungry gap with easily digestible plant protein. His whole catalogue of varieties numbering into double figures has also been shared with the Heritage Seed Library and PGRO (Process and Growers Research Organization) and others have been instrumental in maintaining them.
Driven by a sense of urgency, Colin ran his later plant breeding programme from the Canary Islands, where he could shrink the formidable 12 years required to breed a new variety, using traditional breeding techniques, down to 6 years due to a growing climate that delivered two growing seasons in a single year.
Many scientists who have dedicated their lives to their all-consuming profession would be loath to share the fruits of their labour – and credit – with others. But Colin’s desire to spread his magic beans far outweighed any sense of propriety. According to Tamsin, Colin shared his seeds with anyone who was interested. Researchers at Warwick University, farmers in Cambridge and researchers and growers across the UK have trialed his varieties, and I have even found his Horsehead variety for sale in the USA.
A bean is a multidimensional thing, too. They aren’t just useful for filling stomachs. Tamsin (his daughter and field work assistant pictured above) pointed out to me the educational potential of the giant white Ph. coccineus ‘Aristook’ beans. Five large, tactile beans represent a handful for a small child. Holding these magical seeds can encourage an awareness of the value of growing your own and caring for your own seeds.
This is the vision Colin held dear and which his wife and descendants are carrying forward: seeds in the hands of the many, adults and children alike.
Find out more
In the coming months we will be producing a short film about Colin’s amazing life and work.
In the meantime, we’d love to hear any of your stories about Colin and growing his beans or any other beans that are growing well for you, particularly ones that have been adapted to shorter, colder, damper northern climates.
What have you grown? Where and how did they do? How do you remember Colin and his magical beans?
Get in touch with Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories about Professor Leakey and his beans.
With special thanks to Susan and Tamsin Leakey for their time and hospitality.