INSIDERS Why Pea will Play a Huge Role in the Future of Food

Why Pea will Play a Huge Role in the Future of Food

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Tom Warkentin
Tom Warkentin
Pea and Soybean Breeder, Crop Development Centre, University of Saskatchewan - Tom's main focus is plant breeding of pea cultivars for western Canada and the northern tier states, as well as research related to improving the pea crop in terms of disease resistance and end-use quality. He also collaborates on soybean breeding for the short season regions of western Canada.

Plant-based protein is a hot topic in the breeding community, and for good reason. The potential of pulses is being realized more than ever before, and products like the Beyond Meat burger show that crops like pea — which I’ve been breeding at the Crop Development Centre for 20 years — are coming into their own and are in a position to play a huge role in the future of the world’s food system.

I had the pleasure of visiting Beyond Meat’s research laboratory in California and was filled with a sense of excitement over what I saw there — a group of young scientists doing amazing things with pea protein and other plant-based ingredients.

It’s a sense of excitement I’ve felt for a long time as I’ve watched acreage of pea rise steadily since the 1990s to where it sits today at over four million acres across the Prairies. When I first joined the CDC in 1999, I could see there was a lot of momentum developing in pulses both at the CDC itself and in Saskatchewan in general.

Working with a great team made up of senior breeders Bert Vandenberg, Bunyamin Tar’an, Kirstin Bett and pathologist Sabine Banniza, our program has released both the No. 1 yellow pea and No. 1 green pea varieties in Western Canada — CDC Meadow and CDC Striker, respectively, with many new varieties also gaining acres.

We have more breeders and more technical staff than two decades ago, which helps us breed better varieties and pave a new path forward for pulse crops in the West. Obviously, new breeding technologies and significantly more computing power than existed in the past also aid us in this area.

As our program has evolved we’ve come to realize two big frontiers in which pea and other pulses hold tremendous potential that Canadian agriculture is only beginning to realize.

  • Pulse crops are a food of the future. As we’ve seen with the Beyond Meat burger and products like it, pea protein can be used to craft amazing new products. The rise of pea fractionation has put a spotlight on pea as a versatile food product.
  • Pulse crops are a great option for the field. Currently, pulses represent only about 15% of the annual cropland on the Prairies, which is still rather low. Pea (and pulses in general) offer a great option for producers to diversify their crop rotations. Many rotations are based on only a couple of crops. Pulses like pea offer farmers a nitrogen-fixing crop option for which market options are expanding. It’s a win-win for growers.

Our breeding program is currently looking at increasing protein concentration and quality in pea; improving nitrogen fixation in pea; increasing mineral bioavailability in pea; and increasing tolerance of pea to high temperatures during flowering. All four of these will be crucial to breeding pea varieties that can meet future challenges like climate change and consumer/processing demand.

Of course, any new variety we develop must deliver value for the farmer so that they will want to include it in their rotation.

Much is on the horizon for pea and pulses in general — I’ve had the pleasure of being part of the CDC’s relatively new soybean breeding program we hope will soon yield even more options for producers in Western Canada. Stay tuned!

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