Peas have superpowers
Peas have remarkable properties - an observation made 200 years ago by the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. By carrying out crossing experiments with more than 10,000 pea plants, he researched the inheritance of traits in plants. His discoveries, known as Mendel's rules, laid the foundation for modern heredity theory. However, the annual butterfly plants did not only serve as model organisms for the world-famous pioneer of genetics. The little pearls that grow in their pods have the potential to become superfoods and help promote sustainability on the plate and in the field.
Protein from the field
Whether as fresh green peas from the garden or as dried, mature grain peas from the field: domestic pulses, which belong to the group of grain legumes, are characterized by their high protein content, fibre and vitamins. There are now over 250 different varieties available worldwide, which are used in many different ways. They are not only used as animal feed, but also as dry peas or raw material suppliers for the food industry.
"Peas are one of the oldest cultivated plants that have played an important role in human nutrition and animal feed for thousands of years," explains Nina Blijdorp, international product manager for oats and peas at the seed company KWS. The demand for regionally grown protein crops has been growing steadily for several years. "Younger consumers in particular are increasingly turning to alternative, plant-based protein products," says the agricultural scientist.
On trend: pea protein
Many food manufacturers have already responded to the new needs of consumers. A glance at the supermarket shelves reveals a wide range of products made from plant-based pea protein. Specially processed pea flours, concentrates and isolates can now be found in a variety of foods such as "schnitzels", pasta, yogurt, drinks, ice cream and sports bars. The special thing about it is that the protein isolate, which is mainly obtained from yellow grain peas, has a protein content of up to 86 percent. The question of whether it will be possible in the coming years to breed peas with a meaty taste in order to come as close as possible to the original animal product is not necessarily decisive for Nina Blijdorp. "Food is associated with a completely different awareness these days. For many consumers, it is no longer so important that the plant-based alternative product actually tastes like meat."
Grain legumes - a sustainable symbiosis for humans and animals
Peas are not only a first-class source of protein for humans and animals, but also offer significant ecological benefits for modern agriculture. This legume with its grain legumes helps to diversify crop rotations that are heavily geared towards cereals. It promotes the formation of humus and improves soil quality. The special thing about pea plants is that they form a symbiotic relationship with nodule bacteria that colonize their roots. These bacteria are able to bind nitrogen directly from the air and make it available to the host plant to form protein. In this way, the pea feeds itself, making the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer superfluous.
Increased yield with subsequent crops
The following crops also benefit considerably from the cultivation of grain legumes. When the seeds of grain peas are harvested with a combine harvester, the remains of the plant and all the roots remain on the field. These remains contain nitrogen reserves, which are then available for subsequent crops.
Experts estimate that up to 70 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare can be saved in this way when it comes to fertilizing the following crops. "Farmers can not only reduce the use of mineral nitrogen fertilizers, they can also achieve up to one tonne more yield per hectare from the following crop thanks to the natural nitrogen enrichment in the soil," says Nina Blijdorp, explaining the benefits of pea plants, which also provide food for many insects with their flowers. To ensure the long-term health of the pea plants and to fully exploit their agricultural benefits, it is recommended that they are only grown on the same field every six years.
A study by the Boston Consulting Group predicts that the amount of plant protein for human consumption will increase fivefold by 2035, to around 70 million tons. Nevertheless, grain legumes are still a niche crop compared to main crops such as wheat. They are an increasingly attractive additional option for farmers, but have a lower yield.
Farmers currently grow pulses on just under two percent of the total arable land in Germany. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture's targeted protein crop and arable farming strategy aims to increase cultivation to ten percent by 2030 and make it more attractive for farmers.
The seed company KWS is also moving with the times and wants to further expand its breeding successes with peas. Nina Blijdorp comments: "Peas are fascinating plants that are ideal for regional protein supply for humans and animals. In order to make even better use of their potential, the taste, texture and processing properties of pea protein will play an even greater role in breeding in future, in addition to characteristics such as yield, stability and protein content."