From creating novel foods to tackling Type 2 diabetes, new agri-tech and increasing genomic knowledge is unlocking the potential of the humble pea seed, explains Professor Claire Domoney, Head of Metabolic Biology at the John Innes Centre (JIC). She will be sharing her insights at Agri-Tech East’s REAP Conference later this year (7 November).
According to recent research, the pea-protein market will be worth £26.7 million by 2020. With its low carbon footprint and strong nutritional benefits, new markets are opening up for this childhood vegetable and this interest is evidenced by Japanese snack producers relocating to the UK to benefit from the strength of its pea production and research-base.
Impact on human health
Claire’s research at JIC aims to understand the impact of pea-seed composition on nutrition and human health, including the benefits of increasing resistant starch composition. This starch is digested more slowly in the upper gut, which can lead to better blood glucose control and more sustained energy levels. Undigested starch moves on to the colon and feeds gut bacteria that can produce by-products with potential health benefits.
Claire explains: “Our research is showing that it is possible to develop legumes with higher levels of resistant starch and improved protein profiles, creating the potential to deliver novel and healthier food products. This can be pea flour to use within existing foods to help tackle obesity and Type 2 diabetes, but also to create specialised products with high nutritional value for coeliacs and people with wheat allergies. Breeding new varieties will take time, but that process is being speeded up by new technologies.”
New technologies are also enabling improved technical expertise and processes to modify or mask the earthy, sometimes bitter, flavour of pea protein, which is allowing for greater use in shakes, bars and baked foods. Claire’s work on the molecular and genetic control of seed traits in pea builds on JIC’s 108 years of pea research: “Crop wild ancestors had a much richer genome. Current genomic and genetic knowledge is already enhancing our ability to tap into wild relatives to identify those genes which have been lost from cultivated lines.”
Highlighting disease resistant genes as an example, Claire adds: “Disease resistant genes are needed in abundance, as chemicals are withdrawn from agricultural use and pathogens and pests continue to evolve at a very fast rate; we need a wealth of armoury to combat these.”
Priorities for agri-tech investment
The priorities for investment in agri-tech innovation are the subject of an all-new debate at this year’s REAP Conference. Claire will be one of an 8-strong panel of scientists, technologists and producers.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Claire commented: “In a very short space of time, both historically and evolutionarily, we have moved from food scarcity to food as a killer and promoter of disease. Rather than considering food production in terms of yield and calories produced, we need to consider the production of healthy food alongside the restoration of a healthy countryside and healthy population.”
Agri-Tech East’s REAP Conference will be held on Wednesday 7 November 2018 at Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre, Hinxton, Cambridge, CB10 1RQ.