Dr. Tom Warkentin (PhD)
Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program (SRP) Chair in Field Pea and Soybean Crop Breeding and Genetics
BREEDING PEAS THAT PACK A NUTRITIONAL PUNCH
(by Ashleigh Mattern)
The visual quality of pea and soybean seeds — like the size, shape and colour — is one of the aspects Professor Tom Warkentin breeds for.
“It has to be attractive for consumers because pulses are historically purchased based on a raw product that consumers see almost as it is off the combine,” Warkentin said.
Warkentin is a field pea and soybean breeder, specializing in breeding pea cultivars for western Canada and the northern tier states, and soybean breeding for the short season regions of western Canada.
Protein concentration in peas is important as well because pea is being used more and more in the plant- based protein world, including in plant-based burgers, plant-based beverages and sports nutrition.
“Pea has kind of gained an interesting fit into those markets,” he said.
From a plant breeding point of view, his goal is to develop varieties that have more protein in the seeds to make it more efficient to extract protein from them. Those industries are growing in Canada, the U.S., Europe, and China, extracting protein from peas and selling them to high value markets, he said.
In 2019, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture supported a five-year project led by Warkentin and Dr. Bunyamin Tar’an (PhD) to increase protein concentration and quality in pea. The program is called P-POD, which stands for Pea Protein Omic Determination. There are about 30 local, national and international collaborators on that project.
There has also been some work done to improve minerals and micronutrients in peas, like boosting iron, zinc and selenium. With iron, they’re not only increasing the concentration, but also how available it is to the human or animal eating the food.
Peas, like other grains, have a molecule called phytate that latches on to the iron and makes it unavailable, but Warkentin’s team has developed a low-phytate pea. In a recently published study, when the low phytate pea was fed to chickens there was improvement to blood hemoglobin levels when compared to a regular pea or a non-pea diet.
The low-phytate peas are also currently being tested in an eight-week study with female athletes, in collaboration with researchers in kinesiology, nutrition, and food science.
“Basically, we are comparing the hemoglobin level of the athletes at the beginning of that study and the end of the study … to see if there's some change based on the diet,” Warkentin said.
The study will also look at exercise performance. They’re working with women because there is a higher tendency for women athletes to be low in iron.
“My daughter’s an athlete, too, so it hits home for me,” Warkentin said.
Warkentin grew up on a farm near Winnipeg, MB and he still enjoys being in the field. “I like the summer season — to see the plots, to be in the field, to make observations, to collect data, to see the province,” he said.
Warkentin earned his bachelor’s and Masters degree through the University of Manitoba-Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, and completed his Ph.D at the University of Saskatchewan.
He was attracted to the work because he likes tackling problems with practical outcomes. And the results of his work certainly have had a real-world impact: His program’s pea varieties are occupying 80 per cent of the production area in the Canadian prairies, he said.
‘BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE’
Breeding for root rot resistance will be a major focus of his work for the next five years or more, Warkentin said. “We have a significant issue with root rot,” he said. “There’s several fungi that are contributing to this complex of root rot so we are putting a major emphasis on trying to address that.”
He works closely with CDC plant pathologist Dr. Sabine Banniza (PhD), who is looking at the problem from the pathology side, while he is looking at it from the side of breeding for resistance. The soybean program at the CDC is younger than the pea program, but also has potential in the future of agriculture in Saskatchewan.
“We think about it as ... building for the future,” he said. “We’re trying to provide another option for farmers.”