Peas are the future

Breeder portrait Agata Leska

“Peas are true all-rounders. They have numerous uses, they fix nitrogen in the soil and are important sources of protein for animals and humans,” Agata Leska (born 1977) enthusiastically tells us. She should know, because the has been involved in breeding peas for Peter Kunz Grain Breeding (GZPK) for ten years. Peas are grain legumes whose cultivation has become unpopular in recent decades.

However, with the growing demand for sustainable crop rotations to improve the soil and for meat-free protein sources, interest in them has once again been growing recently. “Chickpeas and lentils have already been rediscovered,” explains Agata, “but peas are much better suited for cultivation in Germany or Switzerland.”

Portrait Agata Leska

The way to breeding

Born in Poland, she studied horticulture in Warsaw and came to Switzerland in 2002 to learn German. She ended up staying in Switzerland for love. Before she started working for GZPK, she worked in variety testing at Agroscope in Zurich. When Agata moved to GZPK in 2011, the focus of the breeding projects was clearly on cereals. But as an after-work project, some initial cultivation and crossing trials with legumes had already been conducted.

Ab 2012 konzentrierte sich Leska dann auf die Erbsen. „In Polen werden sehr viele Erbsen angebaut, entsprechend gibt es eine große Sortenauswahl dort. An den drei staatlich finanzierten Züchtungsfirmen wird zu Proteinpflanzen geforscht, darunter Erbsen“, berichtet die Züchterin und gibt damit einen interessanten Blick über den „Tellerrand“.

Pea pods

Varieties screening as a mammoth task

As a Polish speaker, she was able to get a good overview of the status of breeding in Poland and make contacts with colleagues. She then began to grow pea varieties from Poland and many other countries for selection to learn about their properties.

“There were years when I had 120 varieties in the field. Including green, yellow and brown peas. Observing and describing everything is very labor-intensive. Each variety is practically like a child. You have to find out what properties each individual variety has,” says Agata, describing her mammoth task.

Pea blossoms

Breeding goals

Since neither old varieties from gene banks nor new varieties that have been tried and tested elsewhere did well in Switzerland, GZPK decided to breed completely new varieties. “They should be adapted to the local climate and soil conditions and have a high yield and protein content.

At the same time, resistance to lodging, harvestability, good flavor and good leaf health are of great importance. It is also important to us that the peas are also fit for human consumption and not just used as animal feed,” Agata summarizes the ambitious goals.

Peas and lupins in the breeding plot in Feldbach

Intuition required

She used varieties which had shown good characteristics at the selection cultivation stage as crossing partners in order to create new combinations of characteristics. Every year, the pea specialist crosses about 30 varieties by hand. You need about ten crosses per cross parent to ensure you have enough peas to sow in the end. That means getting really fiddly 300 times a year to remove the stamens of a pea flowers with the pollen lying on it using tweezers and then brushing on the pollen of another flower.

A pod with three to five pea seeds then grown from the pollinated flower. In the next generation, this will produce up to five pea plants, each producing 30 to 60 seeds. Agate then selected the most promising specimens from each newly created generation again and again. Over the years, many colleagues have helped her with the evaluations.

Manual pollination of a pea flower

Varieties being put to the test

“In the end, we have narrowed it down to three breeding lines with a lot of potential,” says the breeder happily. Last year, Swissgranum began a three-year trial to evaluate their quality. The Swiss industry organization for cereals, oilseeds and protein plants is currently conducting variety tests with various winter and summer peas. With the financial support of the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture, a list of recommendations for farmers is to be created. Varieties from both conventional and organic breeding are included in the variety trial.

They are tested at six different locations, two of which are organic. 2021 was very unfavorable for peas overall. Many farmers had no harvest because of the high rainfall and hailstorms in June which knocked the plants to the ground. “However, the varieties from organic breeding performed best on the organic fields, and they also worked very well on the conventionally farmed fields. We were able to convince people that organic breeding plays a major role,” says Agata, summing up the first year of testing. 

The leaf mass of pea tendrils

Cultivation in mixed culture

The extreme weather conditions in the summer of 2021 demonstrated the importance of resistance to lodging in a particularly dramatic way. In order to increase it, it is recommended to cultivate peas as a mixed crop. This means sowing peas together with a grain as a support culture. Barley has proven itself as a support culture in GZPK’s experimental cultivation.

“In this way, the significant leaf mass of the legume can climb on the stalks of the grain and has support. In addition, in this mix weeds are very efficiently suppressed, the yield is more stable and therefore all the more interesting for the farmers,” explains Agata. Both cultures are harvested together, and the components are then mechanically separated from one another in the mill.

Peas and garley in mixed cultivation

The next steps

Swissgranum is only testing the mixed crop at one of their organic locations, which means that the varieties from organic breeding are at a disadvantage in the test, admits Agata. Nevertheless, she hopes that her varieties will make it onto the recommendation list, so that the varieties can then be included in Switzerland’s national variety catalog.

In order to be sold not only in Switzerland, but throughout the EU, they would then have to go through European variety testing for another two years. Meanwhile, the breeding work at GZPK continues. In the meantime, grain legume breeding has a permanent place at the GZPK and is permanently supported by four other colleagues with different specializations. The goal is to register more varieties in the future.

Pea breeding plot in Uster

Erbsen für die menschliche Ernährung

“Peas have an incredible amount of potential as a protein-rich food. There are already some on the market, but many companies are still researching possible uses. A pea-based steak from a 3D printer is still a long way off, but anyone can easily make falafel or hummus from peas at home,” explains the breeder.

She has even developed her own recipes (see link below). In order to find out which pea variety is suitable for which type of processing, she carries out taste and sensory tests.

Different types of peas undergoing a taste test

Lupinen als nächste Herausforderung

Other legumes are also very suitable as suppliers of nitrogen and protein.  Lupines, for example, with their long, strong roots, can also bring phosphorus up from deep soil layers. As part of a three-year project with the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and Bio Suisse, Agata supports the trial cultivation of a total of ten lupine varieties using various cultivation methods (pure stands and mixed cultivation) for GZPK.

More and more farmers want to grow lupines, but are in need of experience-based information and variety recommendations. Agata is happy about the increasing demand – and not just because she is an enthusiastic drinker of lupine coffee, she jokes.

Lupine blossom

A collection of recipes by Agata Leska and her colleagues to inspire experimentation with peas, lupines & other legumes. (Download pdf in German)

Pea hummus

Photo credits: photos 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12 GZPK, rest bioverita