Farming feature: The protein crop we are 'too posh' to eat - why UK bean crop consumed by Egyptians
PUBLISHED: 08:01 28 August 2019 | UPDATED: 14:31 02 September 2019
East Anglia looks set for a promising bean harvest this year - but most of the crop is destined for overseas markets.
Is it because we are "too posh"? While Brits have yet to develop a real taste for beans and pulses, they are an established staple in the Middle East.
Many of the UK's field - or fava - beans arrive at a Frontier Agriculture depot at Eye, in north Suffolk, before heading for destinations including Egypt, where they are much in demand.
Frontier is gearing up for a much higher yield year than 2018, when the June-July heatwave put a real dent in the crop, as the bean harvest starts to come in across East Anglia.
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The crop production and grain merchanting firm is now preparing in earnest to put them in containers at the depot, and ship them out to overseas destinations.
Frontier bean trader Andy Bury has visited the main destination - Egypt - many times to meet with buyers. "It's a very personal trade," he says.
Beans grown across the UK are packed in Eye and then shipped to Egypt, where they end up being made into the country's own version of falafel. This is made with fava beans rather than chick peas - which are favoured in wealthier parts of the Middle East.
"It's basically because the Egyptians love to eat fava beans but the wealthier nations tend to use chick peas for falafel," explains Andy.
The Egyptian version, known as taameya, is extremely popular in the 98m population country, which is reported to consume about 800,000t each year. But it grows just 50,000 to 100,000t, with Australia and the UK the biggest suppliers, at about a third each, and the rest coming from the Baltic states.
Once harvested, the beans will be taken to a grain store where they will be cleaned up and put into 20ft containers, each of which can take about 25t of beans. The consignments, gathered in Eye, will go directly via Felixstowe port to the port of Damietta in Egypt.
Firms like Hodmedod, based in Halesworth, are trying to popularise homegrown beans and to persuade farmers to grow more pulses and other crops in the UK for home markets - but for the time being the domestic market remains very much dwarfed by countries like Egypt. A good portion of beans grown here will also end up as animal feed.
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"We are too posh to eat fava beans in this country. We don't eat them - it's just bonkers. We import chick peas - I have never understood that," says Andy.
The beans grown in the UK are all fava beans, and are a smaller version of a broad bean and are dry, making them a good, practical option with a long shelf life. After Egypt, the principle markets for UK beans destined for human consumption are Jordan, Libya and a bit of Tunisia and Morocco.
About half will be made into falafel and the other half will go into a baked bean mix with tomatoes, onions and spices.
The lower quality beans head to southern Spain, Italy and the central Mediterranean to be made into animal feed - principally pig feed and pig rolls.
While these countries lie in the European Union, Andy is reasonably confident a post-Brexit levy is not on the cards for this particular crop, although "you can never say never", he says. The feed beans will head out from Ipswich, Tilbury and Southampton and other east coast docks to their final destinations.
"The thing is with beans is unlike any other produce, they are not milled or malted or crushed," says Andy. "There's no process."
Farmers use the crop as part of their rotations because it fixes nitrogen into the soil, helping with vital nutrients.
"From an environmental point of view you can't get a better crop in terms of nitrogen replacement - it improves soil structure," explains Andy.
He predicts we will see more uptake of the crop in this country - although that will be coming from a low base.
He expects this year's crop to come in at more than 600,000t (compared to around 450,000t last year). Exports to Egypt are expected to reach around 150,000t. Prices per tonne stand at around £220 for human food quality, and £190 for animal feed beans.
"They are harvesting in East Anglia at the moment, and the yields are for better than last year - up by 25-35%," says Andy. The quality is being assessed, but in general he predicts it will be better than 2018. He expects after the late August warm weekend harvesting will progress rapidly.
"The crop is looking good from the farmer's point of view and prices have held up relatively well, so it will have been a good crop for farmers and growers."