The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) is to head up a new research and breeding programme, developed to assess the feasibility of chickpea production in the UK.
Christened ‘Cicero’, the £500,000 project has received funding support from the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) .
In common with other nitrogen-fixing legumes, chickpea has the potential to reduce on-farm fertiliser requirements and the high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with fertiliser production and application.
Current UK legume production is mainly restricted to field beans and combinable peas, which are not necessarily optimised for human consumption.
A large proportion of these crops is destined for animal feed.
In contrast, chickpea is familiar to the food industry. However, the crop is rarely grown in the UK, largely due to the scarcity of adapted varieties and the lack of knowledge both growers and advisors have of the crop.
UK food companies annually import 60,000t of chickpeas for products including standalone tins, pouches of cooked chickpeas and packets of dried pulses.
Chickpeas are used as ingredients in ready meals and bakery products. Cicero will explore the possibility of displacing imported chickpeas, courtesy of UK-grown crops.
Project lead and NIAB’s head of breeding, Dr. Phil Howell said that Cicero will take a multi-faceted approach.
Variety trials and agronomy testing will be carried out by NIAB and specialist seed company Premium Crops, ranging from small plots up to field-scale evaluation.
End-use quality assessments will be undertaken by Norfolk-based grower Place UK, which has successfully grown chickpea crops to sell through its vertically integrated food ingredients business.
“Whilst the two-year project timescale prohibits a full breeding cycle, new populations will be advanced rapidly through the glasshouse, with selections ready for their first field evaluation by spring 2025,” Howell stated.
“NIAB has already assembled a diverse collection of chickpea material, which will be evaluated in field nurseries over the project duration.
“These will be complemented by a unique population of novel induced variants developed together with biotechnology start-up Viridian Seeds.
“These new sources of diversity will all feed into a second cycle of new crosses to kick-start the development of UK-adapted material.”
The NIAB representative explained that chickpeas are a classic example of the challenges the legume sector is facing.
Manufacturers must often rely on imports to service the increasing demand for healthy plant-based foods.
“While this crop can be grown in the UK, its yields and quality are unreliable because current varieties are not well adapted,” Howell continued.
“Ultimately, we need better varieties bred specifically for UK conditions, but we also need to improve our agronomy know-how to get the most out of varieties, now and in the future.”