Pea protein project receives £1m to reduce UK reliance on soya
National innovation agency Innovate UK has granted £1 million to a ‘Pea Protein’ project to develop homegrown flavourless peas that can reduce the imports of soya into the UK.
The collaborative project will be led by the research division of agricultural grass and forage seed company Germinal, Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO), and the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich.
The breeding programme will involve researching pea genetics to create new flavourless varieties of peas that still retain the same nutritional value.
The gene for neutral tasting peas was first identified by scientists in the 1990s at the JIC. Professor Claire Domoney, one of the scientists involved in the initial research says it was stopped because there was little need for it at the time.
With the ever-growing demand for alternative proteins in the UK, the research has now become a necessity, says Professor Domoney: “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”.
The Pea Protein project has three goals: to replace soya with UK-grown protein crops, to meet the market demand for taste and functionality, and to grow soya protein alternative more sustainably.
Managing Director of Germinal UK and Ireland, Paul Billings, said in a statement: “Finding a sustainable alternative to soya is a priority for the food industry. Protein crops such as peas are ideal for the UK climate but one of our challenges is their flavour profile in human food. Pea flavours are undesirable for consumers in processed food, so the goal is to produce peas that are tasteless but retain nutritional value.”
The JIC says the pea varieties must meet market demands and UK farmers’ agronomic requirements before they can be developed for commercial use.
In an interview with the BBC, PGRO’s CEO Roger Vickers explained that growing more peas would benefit farmers as it doesn’t require much fertiliser: “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.”
According a 2022 report from the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya, the majority of UK soya imports in 2021 came from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, followed by Canada, USA and Europe.
While soy protein is one of the most widely available plant-based proteins in the UK, little soy goes towards producing vegan and vegetarian protein products. Statistics on the ingredient’s global use in 2017-2019 show that 20% of soy goes directly towards producing foods such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk and oil, but over 75% is used in animal feed.