Canada’s top lentil breeder is working hard to ensure the country maintains its role as the world’s largest producer and exporter of the crop.
Bert Vandenberg, breeder at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, said the next phase for the industry is focusing on shipping value-added product rather than bulk lentils overseas.
One example is creating biofortified lentils.
Lots of people in Bangladesh suffer from arsenic toxicity, and Vandenberg’s team has created lentils with high selenium levels that it believes could help reduce the incidence of this condition.
“When we fed them to the mice and the rats, it showed that there was binding between the selenium and the arsenic, and the arsenic was being flushed out of the body,” he told delegates attending the Emerging Technologies for Global Food Security conference.
Human trials are now underway with 400 people in arsenic affected areas of Bangladesh, who are either eating lentils with high levels of selenium or none at all.
The first data from the human trials has just been produced but had not been analyzed at the time of Vandenberg’s presentation.
His team is also working on fortifying lentils with iron on an industrial level.
“We think it’s easily feasible technically,” said Vandenberg.
“It really will deliver quite a bit of iron to people that need it.”
The goal over the next two years is to make biofortified lentils an acceptable product in export markets.
The centre has also analyzed different lentil seed coats for factors such as nutrition and taste.
“We tend to throw away the seed coats and feed them to cows at rock bottom prices,” said Vandenberg.
“We think that they’re actually valuable.”
A lot of work has been done to understand what is happening underground to improve root systems, reduce root diseases and create plants that are drought tolerant and even better at fixing nitrogen.
Researchers are also focusing on better understanding flowering so they can create crops that can better cope with climate change.
They’re even looking at creating crops that will improve milling efficiency.
Vandenberg sees significant potential for lentils because the world is going to need more vegetable protein to make up for the shortfall in animal protein.
The world’s mammal-based livestock herd has increased 51 percent in the last 40 years, compared to a 78 percent increase in human population over the same period.
“That automatically means that we are running out of animal protein per person on the planet,” he said.
By contrast, pulse crops are keeping pace with the growth in human population — production has expanded 82 percent over the last 40 years.
The growth in lentils and cowpeas has been particularly pronounced at 340 percent and 444 percent, respectively. Vandenberg said that is because the cooking times of those two crops are much lower than other pulses.
“Try boiling some large kabuli chickpeas. You can go away for the day. It takes a while,” he said. “But lentils, if you go to the next room and get distracted, they’re done.”
Vandenberg said the impossible dream in the late 1970s was to have 20 percent of Saskatchewan farmland dedicated to pulses.
“I can announce today that I think we’ve hit it this year,” he said.
Canada grows about 50 percent of the world’s lentils, and it was Saskatchewan’s top crop export last year, valued at $2.5 billion.