FARGO, ND (August 18, 2021) – Peas are a popular source of protein; their production has a limited environmental footprint and they are economically beneficial for farmers. Although breeding efforts are improving the nutritional content of peas, these gains are not happening fast enough to meet growing demand. To accelerate this research, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), with additional funding from Open Philanthropy, is awarding a $1,012,500 Plant Protein Enhancement Project grant to North Dakota State University (NDSU) to build genomic resources, breeding models and tools for improving total protein content in peas. Matching funds were provided by Benson Hill, Keygene, Syngenta and NDSU for a total $1.2 million investment.
“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 Dr. Jeff Rosichan, FFAR Crops of the Future Collaborative director. “This research is unlocking the genetic potential of a popular, widely consumed crop to expand its role in developing healthy, accessible diets.”
While a variety of pulses such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas yield more protein per acre than livestock, peas have the greatest potential for enhancing protein quantity and quality through breeding. On average, protein is 22 percent of a current pea varieties’ seed. Leveraging the genetic diversity of the USDA pea germplasm collection can potentially help seeds reach a total of 34 percent protein.
NDSU researchers led by Dr. Nonoy Bandillo are addressing this gap by studying the relationships between genes, traits and the environment in increasing pea protein. The researchers are conducting large-scale studies of agronomic and compositional traits of pea germplasm across North America to determine the natural variations underlying protein content. The team is also developing genomic resources to produce DNA-level knowledge for increasing total protein content and evaluating genomic prediction tools. By using genetic information and developing genomic tools to maximize breeding efficiency, the researchers are hoping to increase genetic gains and speed up the development of future pea varieties.
“Everybody talks about a projected world population of nine billion people by 2050,” said Dr. 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 pea, have emerged as a frontrunner. A good example of pulse product that is gaining traction in the alternative protein market is the Beyond Meat burger. My ultimate goal is to develop and release new varieties of pulse crops to meet this growing need.”
FFAR launched the Plant Protein Enhancement Project through its Crops of the Future Collaborative in 2019 to enhance the protein yield of plant-based staple crops and decrease costs. This competitive research program funds grants to enhance the supply chain for plant-based protein in a profitable and sustainable manner. Applicants were not required to secure matching funds.
Crops of the Future Collaborative
The Crops of the Future Collaborative is a public-private, multi-participant consortium convened by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. The Collaborative brings together companies and research organizations to accelerate development of new crop varieties that address food and agriculture challenges. The Collaborative leverages participants’ resources to expand the scientific understanding of characteristics giving rise to complex traits that crops need to adapt to changing environments.