North Dakota field pea researchers target protein levels

Strong market demand, combined with the benefits of nitrogen fixation, has sparked new interest in field peas as a viable alternative in some  U.S. crop rotations. |  Reuters/Valerie Zink photo

The industry believes consumer interest in plant-based meat alternatives could prompt a significant growth in U.S. acres

An American research project led by scientists at North Dakota State University in Fargo is aiming to boost the protein content in new field pea varieties by an average of two percent.

The Plant Protein Enhancement Project recently received a grant worth more than US$1 million from a U.S. funding organization called the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research.

Additional funding from non-governmental and private sector sources, including Syngenta, pushed total project funding to more than $1.2 million.

“Demand for plant-based protein is soaring, both as a commercial alternative to animal products and as a key protein source to ensure global food security,” said Jeff Rosichan, FFAR’s director of research involving next generation crops.

“This research is unlocking the genetic potential of a popular… crop to expand its role in developing healthy accessible diets.”

Currently, field peas are not a huge crop in American agriculture. Average production in the U.S. is about one million acres annually. About 70 percent of that production is based in North Dakota and Montana.

Idaho and Washington state account for most of the remaining U.S. acres but some production — about one percent — also takes place in other U.S. states, such as Minnesota, Nebraska and California.

Although current acreage is small, industry analysts believe that consumer interest in Beyond Meat burgers and other plant-based meat alternatives could prompt a significant growth in U.S. field pea plantings.

The U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council recently suggested that U.S. dry pea acreage could increase to five million acres — a five-fold increase over current levels — within five to 10 years.

By some accounts, the concentrated pea protein industry in the U.S. is valued at $10 billion annually.

Strong market demand, combined with the benefits of nitrogen fixation, has sparked new interest in field peas as a viable alternative in some U.S. crop rotations.

NDSU scientist Nonoy Bandillo, who will lead the Plant Protein Enhancement Project, said the average protein content in U.S. field peas is typically around 22 or 23 percent.

American producers can receive premium pricing for field peas with protein levels of 24 percent or higher, but in most cases protein levels fall below that.

Researchers involved in the Plant Protein Enhancement Project believe that by boosting protein content in new field pea varieties, the economics of growing field peas will become more attractive, prompting American farmers to sow more acres.

Bandillo said the research will involve scientists at several American universities and institutions including NDSU, Washington State University, Montana State University, the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Information System (ARIS).

The project will begin by studying the relationship between the genetics in existing U.S. field pea lines and the environment.

Bandillo said about 300 existing lines will be grown over a three-year period at multiple locations in key field pea producing states including North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Minnesota.

The lines will be assessed for yield, protein and phenotypic plasticity in hopes of determining which lines have genetic resources that could potentially be used to produce new high protein varieties.

“We know that protein content is highly affected by the environment and we know that (protein content) is negatively correlated with seed yield,” Bandillo said.

“What we want to know is what is the genetic control that would possibly allow you to increase yield and at the same time, increase protein content.”

Bandillo said the first step is to determine the extent to which environmental conditions can influence the performance of different pea phenotypes, a concept known as phenotypic plasticity.

“Once we have that phenotypical plasticity information, can we then connect that information with DNA information?” Bandillo asked.

“In other words, is there any piece of DNA that could possibly be involved with protein plasticity?”

Once scientists have a better understanding of protein plasticity at the DNA level, they will be in a better position to use that information and develop new and more productive pea breeding methods.

“We want to develop a breeding methodology where we can use this DNA information… and use it in new generations of what we call precision breeding,” Bandillo said.

“Once we have new precision breeding (programs) set up, the way that we develop new varieties would be more accurate and I would say even faster.”

Bandillo said some accessions of existing U.S. pea lines have produced seed with protein levels of nearly 30 percent.

Researchers do not expect to produce new varieties with protein levels consistently that high, but they acknowledge that the genetic resources are in place to potentially boost average pea protein levels by as much as two percent above current levels.

“I’m optimistic that having at least a two percent increase should be achievable.”

Bandillo said it would likely be a decade or more until the research project contributes to new, high protein pea varieties that are available for commercial production.

Achieving a two percent increase in protein levels would be a huge accomplishment, given the growing global demand for plant protein.

“Everybody talks about a projected world population of nine billion people by 2050,” said Bandillo.

“What they do not tell you is that as part of this growth there will also be a rising demand for pulse crops. As part of demographic growth and urbanization, consumers are now preferring healthier foods and have developed an interest in plant-based protein. Thus, pulse crops, particularly peas, have emerged as a front runner.

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