The mysterious mung bean — transforming appetites and agriculture

December 1, 2016
Written by Helene Hetrick

The nutritious mung bean, native to India and Southeast Asia, started popping up in US vegetarian cookery around 30 years ago — and now it’s becoming a mainstay in parts of Ethiopia. Find out why!

The word “innovation” often elicits thoughts of sleek, new, even futuristic technology. But sometimes the most transformative ideas can also be the simplest.

Would you, for example, consider a small, yellow-green legume innovative?

Small but mighty

The mung bean — packed with protein, fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B6 — has been a staple of Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine for centuries, and in the last few decades it’s made its way across Europe and the United States, too. You might recognize the sprouted version from pad thai, or the split variety in the Indian dish moong dhal. But that’s not all the mung bean is capable of! This versatile, slightly sweet bean can be thrown into a soup or stew, tossed through a salad for added crunch, stir fried with tofu and vegetables on top of rice, or used in place of meat in pasta sauce.

Pad thai with mung bean sprouts

You may be a fan of mung beans without even knowing it. The sprouted version commonly tops popular Southeast Asian dishes like pad thai. Photo: Qasic on Flickr, license details here.

Mung bean superpowers!

Mung beans are even more magical than your average bean. For example:

  • They don’t need to be soaked (unlike many other dried beans) and they cook quickly.
  • Eating mung beans has been linked to decreased risk of age-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
  • Mung beans are a heat- and drought-resistant crop, so they can grow even when water is scarce and conditions are harsh.

Seeds of hope

In the Argoba district of South Wollo, Northern Ethiopia, the climate tends to be hot and dry, and recent El Niño-related droughts have only made matters worse. Staple crops were suffering, and that meant the communities that relied on farming were suffering, too. Then came along the mung bean.

“If people had continued to plant sorghum during this El Niño, instead of adopting the mung bean, we would have had complete crop failure in Argoba.”

“People used to plant sorghum in Argoba,” explains Endris Haile, Vice Head of the Argoba Agricultural Office. Sorghum was the staple crop until Concern introduced the mung bean three years ago with funding from Irish Aid. Farmers quickly discovered the unassuming little bean could withstand drought, is quick to grow, and needs little water. Sorghum, on the other hand, could not survive in these conditions. As Endris pointed out, “if people had continued to plant sorghum during this El Niño, instead of adopting the mung bean, we would have had complete crop failure in Argoba.”

Mother and son beneficiaries from Concern's seed program

Fatuma and her son Endris saved money 7,000 birr (Ehthiopian currency) by cultivating the mung bean seeds they received from Concern. With that money they were finally able to buy a camel. Photo: Eun Young Kim

For every acre planted with mung bean, farmers in Argoba were able to harvest roughly 4,000 pounds of beans, despite drought-like conditions. Better yet, they could plant and harvest the mung beans twice a year, as opposed to sorghum which can be harvested just once a year. A farmer needs about 55 pounds of mung bean seed to plant an acre of land, so the return is a massive 75 to 100 times the amount invested.

Today the mung bean is selling at four times the price of sorghum!

The weight of the future

This kind of simple innovation is becoming more and more important as communities struggle to grow enough nutritious food in a changing climate. And the benefits of crops like mung beans go well beyond nutrition. “Seeing is believing,” said Endris. “Concern started working with just a few farmers and then scaled up funding from the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN] when they saw the results.” With some basic technical support and cooking demonstrations, Argoba farmers overcame their initial skepticism and embraced the crop. In fact, the mung bean is now so popular that it’s selling at four times the price of sorghum! That means more money for farming families that desperately need it.

Endris Haile, the Vice Head of the Argoba Agricultural Office, and his colleague Seid Ahmed

Endris Haile (left), is the Vice Head of the Argoba Agricultural Office. Seid Ahmed, his colleague, is on the right. Photo: Eileen Morrow

The FAO estimates that the total demand for agricultural products in 2030 will be 60% higher than today, and 85% of that additional demand will be in developing countries. Many of these countries are already grappling with an increasingly harsh climate, meaning farmers will need to adopt innovative techniques and unfamiliar crops like the Irish potato and the mung bean in order to meet demand. But so far, Argoba is proving that change doesn’t have to be difficult — it can even taste a little sweet.

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Header image courtesy of Joi Ito, license details here.