How crop breeders use technology to improve the yellow pea

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Yellow pea seems like a simple ingredient, but appearances can be deceiving.

Matt Crisp, CEO of next-generation plant breeding company Benson Hill, recalled the 13-year scientific effort to sequence the human genome.

"The yellow pea genome is substantially larger and more complex than the human genome. Substantially," Crisp said. "It's actually four times larger than the soy genome, to put it in context. It's really complicated."

Crisp would know. Benson Hill recently sequenced the yellow pea genome in order to find ways to optimize the crop for human food, processing and farming purposes. Last month, Benson Hill announced its yellow pea breeding and commercialization program, which is built on the foundation of the genetic sequencing work.

Until now, there hasn't been much attention paid to yellow peas. The ingredient was primarily used in animal food. The taste, nutritional value, and processing and harvesting were not considered important enough to merit much attention to the crop.

But the plant-based protein revolution changed that. Yellow pea went from being one of many options available to becoming an important ingredient to create taste, nutrition and texture in both meat and dairy analogs and protein-boosting products. According to Grand View Research, the global pea protein market was worth $213.1 million last year. That is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 12.7% during the next seven years, with more potential applications in bakery products, meat substitutes and supplements.

Israel-based Equinom, which also uses technology-enabled breeding techniques to optimize crops, has been working on improving the yellow pea for six years, said Avichai Amrad, the company's projects and partnership manager, who heads up its yellow pea program. Because this has been a focus for so long, the company says it has already produced 15 tons of yellow peas this year. Equinom plans to widely commercialize its improved yellow pea plants next year.

Amrad said working on yellow pea is interesting to him because there is so much to be done. And pea plants are at the historic heart of the science used in breeding.

"The entire of genetics was based on peas," Amrad said, citing Gregor Mendel's foundational work on genetics, which was done through cross-breeding the legume.

Why peas?

Yellow pea is already grown on hundreds of thousands of acres across North America, making the ingredient plentiful. Because it's such a popular crop, there's also a lot of infrastructure to process it.

"It's got a good nutrition profile, generally — especially compared to a lot of the other legumes and pulses. It ranks up there," Crisp said. "And it's got some functional characteristics and properties like water binding that formulators have noticed can help with enhancing the texture."

Yellow pea protein isolate can be about 85% protein, which is a higher percentage than even some soy isolates, which are 60% to 70% protein.

Amrad called pea a good alternative protein source to tap because of where it fits in the bigger picture of food ingredients. Soy and wheat are widely used, but those ingredients are both prevalent allergens. Soy has a good health profile, but 94% of the crop planted in the United States in 2018 was genetically modified, according to the USDA. For manufacturers wanting to avoid allergens and maintain a Non-GMO Project Verified certification, pea works.

But peas can also be problematic. For many years, the processing method to turn them into protein isolates for nutritional shakes and bars had not changed. That processing is expensive, and it also uses a lot of water and energy.

"That creates a product that is more processed, less sustainably processed, and results in an ingredient input that's ultimately more expensive," Crisp said.

Armrad said if the pea crop is improved for more efficient harvesting, pea protein will also cost less. And this will in turn increase the use of pea ingredients, since farmers tend to determine which crops to grow based on the potential financial return, he said. Simply put, if there is a type of pea that can produce a large and easily managed crop, there can be a larger pea protein supply.

The largest agricultural companies have skipped over research on peas because their primary focus is on animal feed, Amrad said.

"They're more interested in what the cows are going to eat and less interested in what you're going to eat," Amrad said.

Traditional crop breeders have not done much to improve peas for human consumption through the years. They have largely ignored improving the ingredient's natural flavor profile, which can be very bitter and unpleasant. Formulators have to add bitter blockers and other flavor components, which Crisp said often include sodium, to make the protein palatable.

Benson Hill's pea project

With the genomic map of yellow pea, Crisp said that Benson Hill can use artificial intelligence, modeling simulations and machine learning to determine ways to create yellow peas that have better attributes for human food. With the fully mapped genome, Crisp said they can be precise and targeted as they work to create new varieties of the crop, as opposed to the more time-intensive cross-breeding techniques of yesteryear.

"We can lift up the crop in a really thoughtful manner — in a manner that that really does seek to harness its true natural genetic potential, but be able to do it in an actually shorter timeline than you might otherwise be able to achieve," Crisp said.

Using its CropOS technology platform, Benson Hill is using artificial intelligence and genetics to improve everything about the pea. Crisp said it is targeting the ingredient's protein content, making it significantly higher. The company is also trying to make it taste better overall. And it is attempting to redesign the pea itself so that processing for protein isolates is easier and more sustainable.

Benson Hill's yellow pea breeding program is already attracting some interest from manufacturers and ingredients companies that use yellow pea, Crisp said. The company has a yellow pea ingredients subsidiary, Dakota Ingredients, and has established a yellow pea breeding facility nearby in Minot, North Dakota.

Crisp said that Benson Hill has 150 people focused on the yellow pea project daily. Their expertise varies from data to botany to food sciences, which he said is vital in developing an end product that meets needs in all three of these disciplines.

Benson Hill is working toward being publicly traded through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Star Peak Corp II. Shareholders will vote next week on the deal, which would yield $625 million for Benson Hill and value the company at $1.35 billion. Crisp said the influx of cash would help fund and expand the pea project, which is currently one of Benson Hill's top priorities.

Considering the amount of time it takes for crops to grow and produce seeds, the new versions of yellow pea developed through this project will not be available to farmers for three to five years, Crisp said. It also takes time for crops to produce peas that can be processed into ingredients.

Benson Hill is also working with a smaller group of North Dakota yellow pea farmers to grow some of the seeds under development and give feedback. Crisp said this is important because these farmers know how to grow yellow peas and will notice differences in output, processing and taste.

Crisp said it's important for Benson Hill to take a multifaceted approach to improving the crop.

"There's going to be more required than just, 'I'm going to develop a better yellow pea,' " Crisp said. "I think you've got to thoughtfully deliver a premium solution to the market."

Equinom's progress and partnerships

Equinom has built its reputation on improving crops used as food ingredients. The company closed a $20 million funding round this summer, and is also working on improving sesame seeds and soybeans.

Amrad said the company has a large seed library made up of pea varieties from around the world. Equinom analyzes each pea's genetic qualities, then uses AI to understand how to breed the best legume.

"Those genetic tools are like a script book that can help us identify the regions that we are interested in in the genome of the plant, and then how to select them," he said.

This approach also helps Equinom speed up its breeding process, from about seven years to four or five, Amrad said.

The company has been working to improve pea protein in general, but it's also been working with ingredient makers to custom design pea ingredients for their products. In June, Equinom partnered with European milling company GoodMills. These ingredients, Equinom says, will have diminished off-flavors and will be better textured for meat and dairy alternatives, as well as pasta.

Earlier this month, Equinom announced a partnership with Meatless Farm and its ingredients subsidiary Lovingly Made Ingredients. This custom-designed protein will deliver 50% more protein and reduce the carbon footprint of the ingredient maker, the company says. Amrad said there are significant benefits to this agreement for Equinom, which symbolizes the first "closed loop" project in the space — in which the ingredient maker and the manufacturer work together.

"It's a good process that we can innovate through," he said. "They can tell us about all of the things they have in their production, in their food and we can see the end product. And then through that, we can take it back to the genetics and the peas, and breed a better product for them."

Amrad said the work Equinom does has historically been dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant.

It's being better understood now, he said, as ingredient companies and manufacturers are gaining a better appreciation of how they should start with farmers to find better quality ingredients.

Shani Collins, Equinom's marketing communications manager, said the company has been working hard to connect improved ingredients with products. To test the taste of the new peas, Equinom created a panna cotta from them and gave out samples. This kind of test brings consumer input into the company's breeding efforts.

"Not too many companies out there are doing that," she said.

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