Researchers in the UK are working on developing peas with altered flavours. The objective is not to make them more appealing to picky eaters, but rather to create a homegrown, environmentally friendly alternative to imported soya beans as the demand for plant-based food rises.
Peas are a rich source of protein, but their distinct taste can be challenging to mask when used as a substitute for meat in vegan dishes. Scientists discovered a gene related to the flavour of peas three decades ago, but the research was halted as it seemed to have no immediate practical application. However, now there is potential for it to become the foundation of a new industry.
“The world has changed. People increasingly want plant-based protein in their diets rather than from animals. So flavourless peas have suddenly become flavour of the day,” said Prof Claire Domoney of the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, one of the scientists working on the project.
The UK currently imports four million tonnes of soya each year for food and animal feed, with half a million tonnes used in vegan and vegetarian products, according to Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency. The majority of this soya comes from South America, where its production has been linked to deforestation in rainforests.
The project is part of a government initiative that connects industry with academic researchers to develop projects that benefit society. It is one of several research programs announced by the government aimed at increasing food production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Germinal, a plant breeding company based in Belfast, is leading the project.
“We have an unsustainable habit for soya and we need to try and break that habit,” said the firm’s UK managing director, Paul Billings.
The demand for meat alternatives is growing at a rate of 30% per year, while dairy-free milk and cheese alternatives see increases of 50% and 40% respectively, according to Innovate UK. Increased pea production by UK farmers could help meet this demand.
Peas have significant environmental advantages. They do not require nitrogen-rich fertilisers, which are energy-intensive to produce. Additionally, they contribute nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil, reducing the need for fertilisers as farmers rotate their crops.
However, despite their eco-friendly nature, many people find the flavour of peas off-putting in plant-based products. Even individuals transitioning away from meat may not desire their vegan burger to taste strongly of peas.
Professor Claire Domoney, a researcher at the John Innes Centre in the 1990s, was part of the team that made the initial breakthrough regarding pea flavour. They discovered a gene in pea plants responsible for a chemical that made peas taste less fresh after harvesting. Later, Prof. Domoney identified a wild pea plant from India in which this gene did not function.
“He said ‘this isn’t going anywhere, because we end up with fresh peas with no flavour whatsoever!'” she explained.
Pea producers were excited about the potential of longer-lasting and fresher-tasting peas, leading to a breeding program. However, in the mid-2000s, Prof. Domoney discovered that the program had been abandoned. Last year, Germinal approached the John Innes Centre to collaborate on developing a UK-grown soya alternative. Prof. Domoney’s project aligned perfectly with their goals, and the research was restarted.
”It just goes to show,” she said with a broadening smile, ”that science is never wasted”.
The aim is to create a commercially viable alternative to soya that has higher levels of digestible protein and is easier to harvest than current varieties. Traditional breeding methods will be employed, involving cross-fertilisation between the wild Indian pea plant and other selected varieties known for their high yield, protein content, and suitability for mechanical harvesting.
Once a suitable variety is identified, it will undergo field trials to determine its viability and profitability for farmers under real-world conditions. The Processor and Growers Research Organisation will conduct these trials. CEO Roger Vickers notes that farmers are already increasing their pea cultivation due to the reduction in fertiliser requirements.
“If farmers want to control their costs and act in an environmentally responsible manner, growing peas ticks both boxes. If there is an environmental focus on new government regulations then these crops are very well suited to these, and farmers are recognising that.”
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