Heritage varieties for better insect and human nutrition

Modern crop varieties have been selected for yield and other agronomic characteristics rather than food quality. A decline in the content of vitamins and minerals in a range of vegetables since the second World War is widely acknowledged; this could be due to a range of factors but changes in the varieties grown is likely to be important. A great number of older varieties have been preserved, although they may no longer be commercially available at present due to seed legislation. We are working with the Heritage Seed Library, part of the UK charity Garden Organic (https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl), that hosts a collection of vegetable varieties including beans and peas; some of these are ex-commercial varieties that are no longer registered on the National List and some of them have never been commercial, having been selected by individuals in the past and passed down as heirlooms.  They often have cultural significance or are related to regional recipes and food celebrations. There is potential for them to be brought back into wider cultivation or used in breeding programmes. Hodmedods (https://hodmedods.co.uk/) are a British company that aims to stimulate demand for indigenous pulses and we are collaborating with them on this project.


Legumes also play a vital role in ecosystem service provision; we need to know how more about the utilisation of cultivated pulses by beneficial insects, especially pollinators, and how this relates to differences in the quantity and quality of nectar and pollen. There is potential to grow varieties that will support important pollinating insects by selecting those that provide high quality floral resources, but first we need to understand more about how those floral resources differ and how the bees respond to them.


In this case study we will set up field trials of Vicia faba (broad bean and field bean types) and Phaseolus vulgaris (climbing French bean type) to assess the agronomic performance of heritage varieties in comparison to modern ones. The nutritional quality (protein and carbohydrate content, vitamins and minerals) of the crops will be analysed. During the flowering period we will quantify visitation of the different varieties by pollinating insects and relate this to the production of floral volatile chemicals that may be responsible for attracting them and the quality of the resources that are provided in return (e.g. amino acid profiles of pollen and the sugar content of nectar).


Barbara Smith and Francis Rayns, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University, Ryton Gardens, Coventry, CV8 3LG, UK.


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