Faculty voice:

Irv Widders: From pickles to beans

Oct. 26, 2016

Irv Widders is the director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes at MSU. He is also a professor of vegetable crop physiology in the MSU Department of Horticulture.

Beans are a long way from my first 18 years at MSU when I researched pickling cucumbers. My program focused on improving the productivity and the “crunch” of pickling cucumbers. While Michigan is actually the second largest pickling cucumber producer and processor in the U.S., we all know that pickles are not going to overcome global hunger and malnutrition.

My career at MSU has evolved over the years, to say the least. Today I am a passionate international advocate for grain legume research (i.e., common bean, cowpea, lima bean, chickpea, pigeon pea, tepary bean, etc., all of which are “beans” from a U.S. trade perspective). I have also moved from the laboratory bench to agriculture research program administration. These changes have been gratifying to me. In many ways, I feel that I have found my niche.

I’m frequently asked by both professional and social acquaintances about my work at MSU. My response – that I administer an international research and institutional capacity-strengthening program on grain legumes funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development – typically elicits a series of follow-up questions:

  • What are legumes?
  • What’s the difference between grain legumes and regular legumes?
  • What courses do I teach at MSU on grain legumes?

The last question is the easiest to answer because I don’t currently teach. I did teach extensively in the Department of Horticulture (courses in vegetable crop production, environmental physiology and plant mineral nutrition among others) for 18 years and subsequently continued to lead study abroad programs to Costa Rica (EARTH U.) and Peru through 2010. Now, however, my international program administrative responsibilities occupy 200 percent of my time! Explaining my role as director of research for the Legume Innovation Lab inevitably, also, leads to another round of questions:

  • Are lima beans and mung beans actually beans?
  • What about black-eyed peas (cowpeas)?
  • What is the difference between a bean and a pea (dry peas, cowpeas, pigeon peas)?
  • Why are beans so important that USAID would fund an entire global program on grain legumes?

The reality is that dedicating the better part of one’s career to beans doesn’t immediately engender respect from friends and peers. It requires some conversation to say the least. Many consider beans a lowly food, frequently called the “poor persons’ meat,” and one of the foods on our plate that our parents told us were good to eat. The truth is that beans, commonly served with rice and in tacos, are one of most underappreciated crops in the world.

That’s a large reason for why the United Nations has chosen 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, a global celebration and educational initiative aimed at showcasing the importance of these crops. By all measures, grain legumes are a contemporary health food and among the most worthy of agricultural commodities to invest one’s efforts into.

They are nutrient-rich foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, enhance the sustainability of cropping systems through symbiotic nitrogen fixation, benefit women (the primary farmers of beans in developing countries such as Africa) worldwide and, of equal importance, provide a quality livelihood for farmers from Michigan to Africa and Latin America. Moreover, beans provide the quality protein that serves as a foundation for healthy vegetarian diets.

Agriculture research program administration provides opportunities for faculty like myself to pursue scholarship, international engagement and impact. In my role as LIL director, I am able to use my scientific expertise in plant science to define future interdisciplinary international research priorities for grain legumes that address such global challenges as climate change, increasing productivity to meet demands of future population growth, and to provide consumers access to nutritious, safe and affordable food.

As I frequently share with my staff, the challenges associated with research program administration are undeniably formidable. We must remember the worthiness of the people that we serve, rural smallholder farmers and consumers, especially undernourished children. They are what motivate us each day.

For answers to the questions commonly asked of me and listed earlier in this article, I encourage you to read the current issue of MSU AgBioResearch’s magazine Futures, or visit Legume Innovation Lab.

Photo by Kurt Stepnitz