Pea growing yields significantly boosted by industry breeding partnership

We all know the saying 'as alike as two peas in a pod' but it would appear the pods themselves can be markedly different.

Plant & Food Research's vining pea breeding programme has commercialised 10 new cultivars in the last five years alone, with seed now exported to Australia, Europe, South African and Chile.

The differences may not be that discernible to those of us shuffling peas around our dinner plates, but to growers there has been a major impact on their profitability. The breeding programme has helped lift yields by a tonne per hectare each decade - from an average 5 tonnes a hectare in the 1970s to the current 8.5 tonnes per hectare. New cultivars are also now completely resistant to the plant disease powdery mildew which used to require farmers to spray with fungicides.

And peas are a growing market, so to speak. New Zealand produces about 60,000 tonnes of peas each year, earning $50 million in domestic sales and $80 million in exports, primarily as a frozen pre-packaged product. International demand for processed peas is increasing at 12 percent every five years. New Zealand receives a significant premium for peas but its pace of growth has been half the global average. Primarily grown in Canterbury, peas were identified in a 2012 Coriolis report as one of 25 high potential emerging growth opportunities in food and beverage.

The pea breeding programme - like those of many other plant crops - is predominantly funded and closely linked to industry. Funder PGG Wrightson Seeds has exclusive rights to sell the seeds and pays royalties on sales back to the crown research institute. The other major funder, food processor Heinz Wattie's, has first use of the cultivars which it commercially trials before the seeds are sold overseas. Plant and Food also trials new cultivars with The Processors & Growers Association in the UK because of regional growing differences.

"The point of it is to get improved varieties and we measure that by better yields and improved eating quality. The benefit is to the growers that supply us primarily but if they get a benefit, so do we in buying off them," said Heinz Wattie's Australasia's agricultural technical manager Bruce Snowdon.

It's not just New Zealand processors such as Heinz Wattie's that are the target of the breeding programme, said PGG Wrightson Seeds export development manager David Melhuish. "That's part of the agreement. We also sell to processors in Australia, South America, South Africa and Europe which are all located in temperate areas like New Zealand," he said.

Plant & Food pea breeder David Goulden said it was important to trial new cultivars with the food processors because they buy the seed from the seed companies and allocate it to their preferred growers. The kiwi programme estimates it has around 40 percent market share in New Zealand of peas grown here with processors reluctant to put "all their eggs in one basket", he said. "We'd never expect it to surpass 60 percent." The wider aim is to contribute to New Zealand becoming a major pea exporter.

None of the parties will discuss the financial details of the three-way partnership, citing commercial sensitivities. But Heinz Wattie's said the breeding programme had "exceeded expectations" due to the yield improvements. Feedback from the industry partners plays a key role in what cross-breeding takes place.

Only two of the cultivars have been major export hits - Sonata which is double-podded and high-yielding, and Cawood which is triple-podded with shortened vines suitable for heavier soils. It takes around 10 years from first breeding a new cultivar to exporting it, as it takes some years to build up the required seed for commercial trials.

A new cultivar Acclaim said to have superior eating quality is currently being trialled by Heinz Wattie's. Snowdon said the real test will come once the peas are harvested next year and they can see how it performs when processed. If successful, Acclaim is likely to be used as a replacement for Sonata by the food processor.

It would appear even with peas, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. Melhuish still has high hopes of producing a "magic cultivar" that will mirror or beat some of the big hitters globally. There are only a handful of breeders in the world. "We're up there without a doubt but we'd always like bigger success," he said.


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