Dreams do come true

Passion—and a U of S graduate scholarship—allowed Parthiba Balasubramanian to become one of the country’s leading pulse breeders.

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Some field trips really are better than others.

Although it was 26 years ago, Parthiba Balasubramanian’s voice rises in excitement as he describes his class tour of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics near Hyderabad, India.

“To tell you the truth, I forgot I was in India when I went there,” recalled Balasubramanian. “This is a huge research facility with scientists from all over the globe. The way they interacted with us, the way they presented their research, the facility itself—it was amazing.”

Then and there the 20-year-old undergrad decided he somehow would find a way to go abroad to pursue his dream.

“I realized that if I wanted to work in an institute like that, I needed to be exposed to another culture, different teaching methodology and all that. I said, ‘I must find a way. I must.’”

It was a tall order for a young man from a modest background. But a year later, a graduate scholarship—what he called “the other piece of the puzzle”—would bring Balasubramanian to the University of Saskatchewan, where he would obtain his master’s and PhD degrees and go on to become a leading breeder of dry beans with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“It was for $12,000 a year for two years. Without that scholarship, I would not have been able to come to Canada, that’s for sure,” he said. “There was no way that I, or my parents, could do that.”

Saskatchewan was a big transition—20 C is considered chilly in his home state of Tamil Nadu—and most of what Balasubramanian knew about his new home came from a pamphlet put out by the U of S International Student Office.

The weather, of course, was a surprise—“You don’t know what -25 C is like until you experience it”—but so was the warmth of his welcome.

“I had really good professors and really good friends, both Canadians and other foreign students, who made my life so much better in Saskatoon, he said.”

That good start launched a stellar research career. His specialty is dry beans, the third-most widely grown pulse crop in Canada. Over the past 40 years, the Prairies have become a world powerhouse in peas and lentils, accounting for roughly one-third of world production and more than half of global trade. The area suitable for beans—and there are a bewildering number of varieties—is small in comparison and most go to specialty markets in Europe, the U.S., and Japan.

But there is huge potential both to expand production and to serve markets in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The trick is to find varieties better suited to the Prairies and also appealing to international customers. The latter isn’t easy. In addition to the big three agronomic traits—yield, maturity and disease resistance—Balasubramanian must also breed beans that are the right size, shape and colour.

“If a bean doesn’t look good when it’s dry, then you cannot expect it to look good when it’s processed,” he said. “The visual appeal of the dry seed is extremely important.”

Then there is ‘seed coat integrity’—not so fragile that it will crack and split, or so thick that it won’t soak up water. On top of that, there is the problem of beans getting mushy when cooked and canned—something Balasubramanian has been working on since his student days at U of S. That is why his lab in Lethbridge looks a bit like an industrial kitchen, and is acquiring a state-of-the-art rotary retort (for canning).

It all adds up to a very tall order: High yields; maturity in 105 days or fewer; resistance to white mould and bacterial blight; right size and shape; a nice colour that doesn’t fade too much in storage or when cooked; a robust seed coat that doesn’t crack but still soaks well; and looks good when coming out of a can.

Oh, and ideally you want to have all of that for each of the varieties grown in Canada: pinto, great northern, yellow, black, small red, pink, kidney (dark red, light red and white) and cranberry bean.

In short, there is more than enough work for Balasubramanian, who is one of just a handful of bean breeders in the country. But while the task is large, so are the benefits.

Although humans have been growing and eating pulses for 10,000 years, the legumes have long flown under the radar in the western world. But that is changing. This year has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Pulses to raise awareness of how vital they are to the future of humanity. Because they fix nitrogen and improve soil, pulses are at the forefront of sustainable agriculture, and because they are so nutrient-dense, they are key in the battle against malnutrition and preventing illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

The enthusiasm he showed when talking about that long-ago field trip returns when Balasubramanian talks about pulses and their future. He spoke excitedly of the pulses showing up on the menu when researchers gather at conferences and how his wife recently made a blueberry cake in which half of the flour was replaced by pureed white kidney beans.

As it happens, beans are not a staple in India, and his favourite pulses were yellow and green peas.

“But I eat beans now,” he quickly added. “The thing about India is that pulses are part of the culture and a tradition, just like potatoes are here because they are something you have at Thanksgiving, Christmas and family occasions. Somehow we have to make pulses part of the tradition here.”

Improved pulse varieties play a key role in that. They’ve allowed production to greatly expand and that has given rise to pulse growers’ associations that are both funding more research and promoting consumption.

“Researchers and growers are working together to do everything they can to bring pulses into the mainstream,” says Balasubramanian. “It’s only a matter of time.”