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Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way
WEB MAGAZINE - September 2018

Arctic peas – a potential protein producer in the north

It is September in Tromsø in northern Norway. Today, heavy rain clouds threaten the dramatic landscape. NordGen scientists Ulrika Carlson-Nilsson and Karolina Aloisi are examining peas growing up and along wire fences. Although heatwaves, and even the sun, feel distant today, the work conducted by the scientists is closely linked to climate change and the potential value contained in the small, round pellets of protein.

“In the Arctic part of the Nordic region, adverse conditions, such as low temperatures and long days, require specific adaptation of cultivated crops. As the climate changes, increasing temperatures in these areas will gradually allow cultivation of vegetables, cereals, herbs and other plants that could not previously be grown here,” says Ulrika Carlson-Nilsson, Senior Scientist at NordGen.

Humans have been breeding plants for thousands of years, such as by choosing to keep the wheat variety that gave the highest yield and abandoning the fruits that had a sour taste. But now we need food plants that can survive long periods of drought and wheat that will not be flattened by heavy rainfall. We also need plant-based protein sources that can grow in the long summer nights and survive the dark winter months of the north, which is why the project, Peas – a genetic resource for sustainable protein production in the Arctic, was initiated.

Genetic resources deliver solutions

The global demand for protein produced in a sustainable way will increase as the world’s population grows. In 2030, we will be 10 billion people compared to 7 billion today.

“If we are to feed everyone, we need to develop alternative protein sources. One of the keys to solving this problem is the conservation and use of genetic resources,” says Ulrika Carlson-Nilsson.

In only two years, we are to have reached SDG 2.5, which is to “maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species”. In the Nordic region, the five countries have decided to cooperate on the responsibility to take care of our genetic resources, which is regulated in several international agreements. The work is being carried out by the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), whose task is to conserve and facilitate the sustainable use of genetic resources linked to food, agriculture and forestry.

“If we are to feed everyone, we need to develop alternative protein sources. One of the keys to solving this problem is the conservation and use of genetic resources.”

Ulrika Carlson-Nilsson
Senior Scientist at NordGen

Problematic protein import

Apart from directly feeding people, vegetable protein is also needed to feed our livestock. The vulnerability of our ability to feed our animals became evident this summer, as Scandinavian animal farmers were forced to send their stock to slaughterhouses earlier than planned, because of failed harvests. Today, most plant protein in the Nordic region is imported and much of the plant protein in animal fodder consists of imported soy. However, large-scale soy production leads to deforestation , reduced biological diversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

A step forward is to cut down on red meat and eat more plants – and preferably plants cultivated close to home, thereby reducing the need for transportation. Legumes, like peas and beans, are self-sufficient in terms of nitrogen, reducing the dependency on nitrogen fertilizers and making a positive impact on crop rotation and farming systems. Increasing the cultivation of vegetable protein could be positive for the bioeconomy, creating job opportunities and reviving the rural areas in the north. Consequently, the search for plant-based protein sources that can grow in the Arctic and the Nordic region is highly relevant.

Early flowering and rapid growth

In Tromsø, small drops of rain are now falling on the tangled pea plants. Karolina Aloisi, head of the molecular laboratory in NordGen, is collecting delicate green leaves and small round pods.

“The main aim of this project is to identify suitable pea genetic resources for future cultivation and breeding of pea cultivars for the Nordic region. Early flowering and rapid maturation are examples of qualities that are very important in regions with a short growing season,” she says.

The Arctic Peas project, primarily financed by the Nordic Arctic Cooperation Programme, began last year, when peas from the NordGen collections were regenerated in Denmark. In 2018 and 2019, 50 different types of pea are being monitored in large-scale field trials.

“They have been planted in four different Nordic countries, at different latitudes. We want to see how these peas perform in Taastrup (Denmark) compared to Umeå (Sweden), Jokioinen (Finland) and Tromsø (Norway),” explains Ulrika Carlson-Nilsson, and adds that the aim of the project is to identify a germplasm of peas well adapted either for breeding or immediate cultivation in the Arctic and Nordic regions.

Increased knowledge of the collection

“But we also want to learn more about and use the Nordic pea accessions conserved at NordGen. Efficient use of plant genetic resources is essential if we want to adapt cultivated crops to climate change and subsequently ensure future food security,” says Karolina Aloisi, walking along the pea-covered fences.

The rain has become heavier, and the soil, previously so dry, is turning into mud. Apart from the stunning scenery, the task of studying the peas may not look very glamorous. But the two NordGen scientists picking chubby pea pods may well be laying the foundation for a more climate-friendly diet in the Nordic countries.


Photos: Ulrika Carlson-Nilsson/NordGen