UK’s first crop of homegrown designer beans

A new trio of UK grown dry beans could serve as important ingredients to help our food system better serve public health using British seed, soil and sunshine.

British baked beans

Navy beans, a specific market type of common dry beans, are the key ingredient in the British staple, baked beans. However, producing this factory processed food relies entirely on the importation of thousands of tonnes of dry beans each week from the US, Canada, Ethiopia and China.

Previous attempts to grow navy beans commercially within the UK were unsuccessful due to incompatibility with growth in the British summer. However, research at The University of Warwick led by Professor Eric Holub has now registered three new varieties of ‘URBeans’ adapted for growth in the UK:

  • Capulet, similar in appearance to imported navy beans
  • Godiva, a blonde bean similar in size to imported kidney beans
  • Olivia, a medium-sized black cannellini-sized bean

Scaling up commercial seed production

The first farm-scale crop of Capulet was successfully harvested in September 2023 by Lincolnshire farmer Andy Ward through collaboration with The University of Warwick and agronomy company Agrii Ltd. This pre-commercial partnership was facilitated by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Impact Acceleration Account grant.

Most of the seed harvested on Ward’s farm in 2023 will be reserved for scaling up commercial seed production in 2024. In December, a Capulet sample was successfully processed in a canning trial at Princes Ltd. These are essential steps towards the possibility of canned Capulet beans being on our shelves by 2026.

The URBean trio in their unprocessed form, including Godiva and Olivia, will already reach shelves in 2024 from independent zero plastic stores in the Midlands. By evaluating consumer uptake, it will provide an idea of the scale of production required as well as the wholesale and retail prices for profitable small and medium-sized enterprises along the supply chain.

A key ingredient to serve public health

This ground-breaking agricultural achievement could provide alternative ingredients to promote healthier diets with a lower environmental impact.

An estimated 25% of UK adults are now following flexitarian, vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan diets. Therefore, the demand for plant-based proteins is on the rise with a growing public interest in diversifying diets with climate-friendly ingredients.

Currently, the food industry is heavily focused on marketing meat substitutes. Often these products fall into the ultra-processed foods (UPF) category which are typically associated with high levels of fat, salt and sugar (FSS) and a lack of essential nutrients such as soluble fibre.

Improving the nation’s gut health

High FSS and fibre deficient diets are linked with obesity and associated co-morbidities including type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Emerging research is also indicating that consuming high amounts of UPFs could be damaging to our health, particularly that of our gut.

In 2021, it was estimated that over 25% of UK adults were living with obesity yet were not meeting the recommended nutritional intake. This decreased health span is a huge burden on our health services and poses a major complex global issue.

Unlike a significant proportion of meat substitutes, pulses are low in fat, salt and sugar and do not contain any cholesterol. They are also naturally high in protein, iron and prebiotic dietary fibre recommended for maintaining gut health. The average person in the UK consumes only 60% of the recommended dietary fibre intake. Therefore, UK production of dry beans could provide a key, easily implemented and plant-based ingredient to serve public health.

Increasing food diversity

Only two types of pulses, fava beans and dry peas, are grown commercially within the UK. Therefore, the newly developed URBeans could directly increase food diversity, providing an easily accessible and locally grown alternative.

In the context of UPFs, there is a preference for the dry beans. However, The University of Warwick and Agrii Ltd are keen to promote both the canned and dry beans in parallel in recognition of baked beans as an easily accessible source of fibre.


Capulet and Godiva currently feature in ‘BeanMeals: mainstreaming UK-grown beans in healthy meals’. This is part of the £47.5 million Transforming UK Food Systems (TUKFS) Programme, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund in collaboration with:

  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Medical Research Council
  • Natural Environment Research Council
  • Innovate UK
  • Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Department of Health and Social Care
  • Office for Health Improvement Disparities
  • Global Food Security Programme
  • Food Standards Agency

TUKFS aims to directly research how to transform the UK food system to benefit health, environment, and enterprise.

BeanMeals is an interdisciplinary consortium of researchers from five universities led by Dr John Ingram, the Food Systems Programme Lead at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

Shift in public awareness

Pulses, and beans in particular, in their unprocessed form are not in high demand by the UK public. A shift is required in public awareness of beans as a desirable and accessible ingredient for healthier diets from more sustainable food systems.

The project is addressing this by investigating how to encourage greater use of homegrown ingredients by using pulses as an example. It is promoting low FSS and minimally processed bean-based meals, as an alternative to meat and highly-processed substitutes.

Capulet and Godiva have provided an excellent opportunity for BeanMeals to use a novel, but familiar, ingredient to research how to transform the UK food system. The project is based on ‘systemic innovation’, which requires all components in the beans value chain to work together.

School lunch trials

To this end, the researchers have been working with cooks and students in six primary schools in Leicestershire and Leicester City and their supply chain. By trialling Godiva and Capulet beans in school lunches, the project has helped children learn about the life cycle of the beans from plate to farm using a flipped ‘fork to farm’ approach.

This ‘reverse-thinking’ is providing insight into how to enhance UK bean consumption and hence production potential. By starting with the meal and working backwards along the supply chain, it puts the spotlight on the need to assess what local logistics and other enterprises would need to be strengthened to scale-up more bean-based meals sustainably.

The project has also provided slow cookers and beans to lower income families involved in the project to encourage their use in their home cooking. This schools and homes focus shows how everyday cooks and children could become ‘agents of change’ in our food system, by stimulating local and nationwide enterprise across the supply chain, right back to the farmers.

Analysing potential benefits

The team is analysing the potential environmental, health and economic benefits of UK bean varieties versus imported pulses. They aim to understand both the potential implications for food security, local economies and the environment, and how to bring about the necessary systemic innovation.

It is essential to understand how to adapt these food system interventions to ensure that the homegrown pulses are affordable and accessible.

Public procurement, costing around £2 billion per year to provide meals in schools, prisons and hospitals, is a key component of the UK food system. By using schools as an example, BeanMeals is demonstrating the potential for introducing UK-grown beans into this major market.

12 years of URBean development

Genetic adaptation of URBeans for UK food production began at The University of Warwick in 2011 building on Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) funded work at the National Vegetable Research Station (NVRS) from the 1980s.

Using conventional (non-genetically modified) breeding methods, the trio of novel varieties were selected from breeding between the Edmund bean and a brown-coloured bean called Avon Annie on the university farm. By selecting varieties with a certain combination of genes inherited from the parents, Holub and his team developed the new URBean varieties that had:

  • improvements in harvest time
  • adaptations to plant types suitable for conventional combine harvesting
  • resistance to seed-borne pathogens
  • improved cooking characteristics

Adapting genetic techniques

This project was supported by Holub’s previous BBSRC-funded work into oilseed mustard which allowed the adaptation of genetic techniques for the beans. Two BBSRC-funded PhD students developed the underpinning molecular genetics for the continued development of URBeans.

This included DNA mapping which has identified genes for resistance to the bacterial halo blight pathogen and two common viruses that hinder growth and reduce crop yield. This could prove crucial for future accelerated breeding of new varieties more resilient against the challenges faced in UK growing conditions including emerging pests and disease.

Better beans for farming

Taking only 100 days from sowing to harvesting, the trio of URBean varieties could provide UK farmers with a highly desirable, short-term, and profitable rotation crop in between growing cereals. Compared to the earlier Edmund variety, all three varieties are taller and therefore better adapted to conventional combine harvesting and have a shorter growing period. Importantly, this period is the same in these varieties as those grown in Canada and the US.

Like other legumes, URBeans could reduce fertiliser requirements for subsequent crops due to their naturally nitrogen-fixing properties. As they grow, the plant roots use Rhizobia bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen into the biologically usable form. The plants absorb this nitrogen to form the basic constituents of proteins for high-quality crops.

When the plants die, the nitrogen is released into the soil, for subsequent crops to utilise, making the soil more fertile. Therefore, using beans as a break crop can indirectly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of nitrogen run-off associated with fertiliser use.

Increasing UK self-sufficiency

Although known for high-quality produce, Britain is not producing food in high-enough quantities or variety. Consequently, the UK imports around 46% of its food at a cost of £48 billion a year. On top of this, the ever-growing population is exacerbating existing pressures to increase food production but without detrimental impacts on our environment.

In 2021, the UK was estimated to have spent £98.7 million simply on importing dry navy beans for producing baked beans. This figure increases to approximately £300 million when including all common beans (excluding soya beans) imported to the UK per year.

Finding new ways to sustainably grow food on British soil and increase our self-sufficiency in food production is crucial for moving towards our climate goals in the food sector. Instead of replacing imports, a future market for URBeans and other home-grown pulses should be envisioned as adding tasty solutions for healthy diets in the UK.

Find out more

The first British Baked Beans could be on the breakfast menu thanks to University of Warwick research

“We three beans”: Capulet, Godiva and Olivia beans on sale in the New Year

Thinking beyond the can: mainstreaming UK-grown beans in healthy meals (BeanMeals)

Nurtural Food

Top image:  Professor Eric Holub in a field of navy beans. Credit: The University of Warwick 2023

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.