An Israeli crop-breeding firm is getting close to commercializing a high-protein yellow pea for the Canadian market.
“We have lines that are around 30 percent more than you can find in the varieties that are grown now in North America,” said Avichai Amrad, project and partnership manager with Equinom.
Those varieties just finished the first year of co-op trials in Canada’s two-year variety registration program.
The company hopes to get them registered next year and commercialized in 2023.
The varieties were developed for Canada’s burgeoning pea fractionation industry. The market for pea protein is growing at a rate of 26 percent per year, According to Pulse Canada.
Equinom recently signed a partnership agreement with British food company Meatless Farm and its Canadian ingredient manufacturing division, Lovingly Made Ingredients, which has a large facility in Calgary.
It also has an agreement with Roquette, a French plant-based ingredient company that recently opened a $600 million processing plant in Portage la Prairie, Man.
The company intends to continue using genomic analysis combined with artificial intelligence to create tailor-made, non-GMO peas for the fractionation industry.
Amrad said companies selling milk alternative products need different attributes than those making meat alternatives.
One company might be searching for a specific amino acid score, while another is seeking functionality or certain foaming characteristics.
But they are all searching for high protein content, which is something that breeding programs have traditionally neglected in their zeal to boost yields and create other beneficial agronomic traits.
“Protein was kind of left aside and because of that the percentage got lower and lower,” he said.
Equinom has some lines in the pipeline that will deliver 50 percent more protein than today’s varieties.
Allison Ammeter, director of Alberta Pulse Growers and former chair of Pulse Canada, is thrilled with the direction Equinom is heading.
“I think it’s tremendous. I just wish that it was Canadian breeders that were doing it, but I’m happy to support and Israeli company,” she said.
She said there has been plenty of good pea breeding work done in Canada at the Crop Development Centre and Agriculture Canada’s Lacombe Research and Development Centre.
But the main focus of those programs has been agronomic advancements rather than customer-based traits.
“Growing a product with specific traits for a specific market is the way of the future,” she said.
“Then we end up getting products that are exactly what they need instead of just growing hundreds of thousands of bushels of I-hope-this-works-for-you grains.”
She sees that happening with other crops like malt barley, high protein wheat and dry beans and now it is starting to take place with peas.
“I personally think we just stepped into the 21st century thank you. This is a little bit late coming,” said Ammeter.
She hopes farmers will get a price premium for growing the new lines of peas.
Amrad anticipates there will be a premium, especially in the beginning of the program, because it is difficult to persuade pulse farmers to change varieties.
“I think it will take some convincing and a premium will be part of the convincing,” he said.
He noted that while high protein is the main thrust of the Equinom’s breeding program, they are not neglecting other important traits like yield, powdery mildew resistance and semi-leafless plants.
“Maybe in the first varieties that will come out there will be a small yield penalty but we believe we can overcome it in future generations,” he said.
Amrad said the original heirloom varieties that were chosen for their high protein content looked nothing like what they are growing today. They were leafy, disease susceptible plants with green seeds.
Equinom’s goal is to eventually account for a “large chunk” of Canada’s pea market but he realizes they first have to build trust with growers.
Amrad said the company has worked in many different countries around the world.
“Canada is one of our favourites because of the know-how and the quality of farming you have over there,” he said.