Breeding pulses fit for the future

Published 11th March 2022 | Press Releases


We’re told that ‘variety is the spice of life’ – and choosing a variety is certainly a make or break decision for growers, which can ultimately dictate how successful or stressful their next 12 months turns out to be.

Developing a new variety of beans or peas is a complicated, laborious and expensive process – one that must meet current demands while simultaneously predicting the future.

So, as pulses begin to enjoy more demand and growing conditions arguably become more tricky, how has this process changed? And what do the experts have up their sleeve for the next few years?

Yield is king

Historically, yield has been the prime consideration when developing new varieties. But Key Account and Product Manager at LSPB Michael Shuldham stresses that, while still essential, there are other pressing concerns companies need to consider, as demonstrated with LSPB’s Lynx variety which returns to the top of the Descriptive List (previously PGRO’s Recommended List) for yield and has the second highest downy mildew resistance score.

“Combining agronomics with consistent high yield and end-use quality is when the farmer really benefits”, he reasons.

“When we’re breeding varieties, as well as looking at grower needs in terms of yield, earliness (in spring beans) and agronomics, we also breed for end-user suitability.

Jack Holgate, Break Crop and Cover Crop Manager at Elsoms concedes:

“From a grower’s point of view, if we were to produce two varieties of bean and agronomically they stacked up identically and it was just yield separating them, then we would, of course, go for the higher yield.

“So, we look for consistency in yield – that’s the key thing. We don’t just want a one-year wonder. We want to be delivering yields consistently year on year.”

He adds that factors other than yield must also be considered.

“Standing ability at harvest for peas is also a high priority, which is something both our large blue varieties Mikka and Greenway possess,” he adds.

“A grower needs to consider end consumer demand when selecting varieties – will there be a home for the crop they’re growing and a premium? For instance, contracts have been placed and are available for Octavia, our marrowfat variety for the Far East premium export markets.”

James Maguire, Sales Manager & SBU Special at KWS, agrees that although any new variety needs to be higher yielding than previous offerings, that isn’t the only characteristic growers are looking for.

“As a business we want everything to need less chemistry than it would have required in the past, so we always try to breed the cleanest products possible,” he says. “Peas need to stand and then we start to look at characteristics such as seed size and maybe specific new diseases.”

In the wake of chemistry being taken off the market, ‘new’ threats have emerged for growers to contend with, like powdery mildew for instance.

“It looks as though we won’t have any viable seed treatments available for peas going forwards, so old-fashioned diseases that weren’t previously a problem are now a consideration,” James says.

“Previously, you could grow any pea. Now, growers will probably opt for one that is slightly more resilient to mildews. There are some with partial resistance included on the Descriptive List and there are others coming that will have full resistance. That characteristic is going to be key going forwards.”

Tom Barker, Cereals and Pulses Product Manager at Limagrain UK, believes LG Viper, the latest spring bean variety launched by the group, will prove popular for this very reason.

“Growers want varieties to be more resilient and reduce the amount of chemical used,” Tom says.

“It’s always a balance. You could have an incredibly high yielding variety but if its disease package is no good at all, then a grower is never going to be interested.”

Tom adds that Limagrain has also considered growers’ practical concerns when developing new varieties.

“Our new pea variety, LG Aviator, was launched in 2020 and it’s a completely different type of pea,” Tom says. “It holds its pods towards the top of the plant, rather than all the way down, making it easier to combine. We also believe it produces more even maturing peas because the pods are getting much more sunlight.

“It took a long time to develop, but by changing the look of the plant we’ve hopefully created something that will benefit growers in the long run.”

The process of bringing a new variety to the market can take as long as 10-12 years.

“Developing varieties for cereals still takes a significant amount of time, but nowhere near as much as pulses because they’re produced at a much faster rate,” James says.

“It’s also not difficult to find farmers to trial cereals varieties as many grow them every year. However, finding a really good pea or bean grower who produces high-grade crops actually isn’t that straightforward.”

Climate change and sustainability

Disease and a rapidly diminishing toolbox of solutions aren’t a grower’s only challenges. Coping with extreme weather events is becoming more and more common as the effects of climate change are felt and breeders are working on new solutions to make growers resilient against increasingly extreme weather.

“Developments such as ‘Low Vicine Convicine’ (LVC) can allow for increased inclusion of beans within the feed ration for pigs and chickens”, Michael explains. “This will reduce the reliance on importation of soya protein, potentially from areas with the worst environmental records. These types were brought to the market by LSPB in 2019 and may make a difference to animal protein supply chains in future.

“We are also looking at profiling the amino acid content of different varieties to help gain an understanding of what beans have the best feed values for different animals, with imported soya replacement in mind.

“By breeding for earlier maturity, we are also enabling spring beans to be harvested earlier, for instance through our variety Yukon. This allows growers and end-users to benefit from reduced beetle pressure as well as shorter hauls to feed homes.”

Varieties have to be consistent and able to put up with very different weather patterns to those experienced a few years ago, says Tom.

“The past few years have actually been good for testing varieties because we’re seeing drier summers and really wet winters.

“We’ve also seen some very peculiar weather patterns; in 2020 we had frost in April. In 2021 we saw temperatures plummet to 2/3 degrees, only to go up to 12 degrees the following day.”

James adds that trialling varieties in several locations helps KWS monitor how they react to different climates.

“We have five locations in the UK, six in France and four in Germany,” he says. “Within those climates, there is a bit of everything, from continental conditions to maritime climates.

“You tend to find that the best varieties float to the top everywhere.”

James believes that pulses’ popularity will soar as growers prioritise the environment and sustainability.

“Going forwards, pulses have a really important part to play in the rotation,” he says. “As they’re legumes they put nitrogen back in the soil, which is especially topical at the moment considering how expensive nitrogen is.”

He also believes that beans will become more popular as consumers change their shopping and eating habits.

“Historically, most of the beans produced in the UK go to North Africa but I predict they will start to be used more domestically as people consider whether they should be shipped to Africa for human consumption, or if we should be trying to use them here,” he says.

“Historically, the people eating crops such as beans and lentils would have been hardcore vegans. That shifted to vegetarians and now flexitarians and people looking to restrict the amount of meat they consume for environmental reasons.

“Pulses are really good for you, good for the planet and they’re significantly cheaper than meat too.”

Plant-based protein

Crystal-ball gazing is a key part of developing varieties. The rising interest in plant-based protein is a particular influencing force at present, with enormous potential.

This promising trend was a principal reason why Elsoms decided to start working within the sector.

“We are relatively new to the world of pulses, as a breeder,” says Jack. “We are keen to grow our portfolio and we’ve got some excellent material to do that with, particularly with the exciting things we have planned in the pipeline.

“To date, we have three spring bean varieties, which all rank within the top five yielding varieties. Stella is joint second with 105% control. Our pea varieties are also performing well – Mikka and Greenway’s yields are towards the top end and Octavia (marrowfat) was the highest yielding marrowfat in 2021 PGRO trials.

“As a business, we look for areas where we can see potential growth and the pulse market is definitely on an upwards trajectory. We’re committed to developing material to meet the ever-evolving marketplace.”

The plant-protein market has specific demands that require completely different varieties to those that were the most popular in the past.

“This market wants peas with no taste and no colour, so it favours white peas over green,” Tom reveals.

“The white pea was previously only really used in animal feed and some more niche varieties of flour. But now it’s in demand because it doesn’t affect the colour of the final product and it contributes less taste.”

Demand looks set to soar as more and more companies seek to offer plant-based alternatives. McDonalds, for example, launched its highly anticipated plant burger at the beginning of January (or Veganuary, if you will). Peas feature prominently in this new permanent addition to the menu, with both the patty and cheese being made from pea protein.

Tom predicts that demand for peas will only rise in the future, as they have a significant part to play in this widely predicted change to eating habits.

“In the next four to five years we will start to see white peas increase their growing area and the number of green peas produced will probably go down,” he predicts. “Not because markets will disappear, but because new ones will emerge.

“The protein food boom is huge – it is the emerging food market in every sector. And peas have shot right up the food chain.”

And with this rise in demand and importance, an inevitable increase in investment will follow.

“When it comes to breeding, you get out what you put in,” Tom says. “The more money you put into your pipeline, the more advances you will see and the more new technologies you will be able to use, such as gene editing or DNA markers.

“They haven’t really been used in peas yet, but they’re coming. As the value of the market increases, so will the funds available for research and development.”

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