Tomorrow's world today

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Food technology has come a long way in the last 30 years: researchers and scientists have gone on a journey from powdered orange juice - what was the point of that? - through to the Pot Noodle and on to the current vogue for genetically engineered vegetables. (It is a little known TV fact that the BBC's That's Life series was cancelled not because it had the dullest line-up of presenters in history, but because of the growing trend for scientifically modified vegetables. Sadly, without an assortment of suggestive parsnips to hold up before the camera while smiling wryly, Esther Rantzen was deprived of a large chunk of her comic material.)

According to Tomorrow's World, one of the greatest food technology challenges to preoccupy scientists in the Western world since the late 1960s has been the development of a baked bean that doesn't cause flatulence. In 1984, the programme explained how the indigestible molecules found in Britain's favourite tinned food feed bacteria in the lower intestine, producing the gas which causes post-bean wind. You may not think this is an issue of sufficient gravity to warrant extensive scientific research, but, as a nation that consumes two million pounds of baked beans per day, our methane production is no doubt cause for serious concern to the environmentalists as a contributor to global warming.

Dr Colin Leakey is a scientist of the old school variety, and he has made it his lifelong quest to search for a wind-free bean. In 1969, while doing research for a baked bean canning firm, he was asked to find a way to make baked beans more suitable for babies (who, as most of us know, rarely need any encouragement in the flatulence department). His research took him to South America and the markets of Chile, a country prolific in bean production, where he noticed a dramatic price difference between beans that appeared to be very similar. When Dr Leakey asked the stallholders what special properties the more expensive beans harboured, they giggled and gesticulated in such a way as to let him know that these beans, unlike many common-or-garden varieties, could safely be eaten in polite company. It became obvious to Dr Leakey that the good people of Chile had been sitting on a valuable secret for many years, and one which could have a major impact on the global consumption of beans.

Back in Cambridge, Dr Leakey set about his mission to liberate bean-eating Britons from social embarrassment. For the benefit of Tomorrow's World viewers, he proceeded to demonstrate with two party balloons and a plastic tap from a wine-making kit, how the wind-producing properties of baked beans can be isolated and measured. Upon hearing where one of the balloons must be inserted to collect the wind, presenter Howard Stapleton turned rather pale, hastily declining to act as guinea-pig, no doubt hoping that his contractual obligations did not require him to plumb new depths of indignity.

However, he was more than happy to sample Mrs Leakey's cassoulet, made from the flatulence-free beans that her husband has successfully developed as a hybrid from two `parent' bean types and grown in his Cambridge garden. No unpleasant after-effects, apparently. Dr Leakey predicts that, before too long, supermarket shelves will be brimming with beans that can be eaten at even the smartest parties - that is, providing the promotional people can come up with a suitably tactful advertising campaign.

`Tomorrow's World' is on BBC1 tonight at 7.30. This week, Jez Nelson talks to Kevin Keegan about the Technogym, England's new World Cup secret weapon. `Tomorrow's World Plus' is shown on the UK Horizons channel.

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