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Accelerating the inner and outer beauty of lentils

February 21, 2020

Canada, especially Saskatchewan, is a leader in lentil innovation but it’s not geographically close to the markets that consume the most lentils. Given this reality, how can Canadian lentil producers gain an advantage and capture market opportunities on the world stage? With Enhancing the Value of Lentil Variation for Ecosystem Survival (EVOLVES), researcher Kirstin Bett and her team are addressing this very issue.

Announced in summer 2019, EVOLVES is one of eight projects to emerge from Genome Canada’s 2018 Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP) competition: Genomics Solutions for Agriculture, Agri-food, Fisheries and Aquaculture.

EVOLVES strives to accelerate the deployment of specific quality traits in lentils through the strategic use of genetic variability. As a result, Bett aims to improve the capability and agility of Canada’s lentil breeding program in order to gain a global competitive advantage.

Bett is a professor at the College of Agriculture and Bioresources in the department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). Her research is focused on pulse crop genomics and dry bean breeding. Bett earned her PhD from USask and both her BSc and MSc from the University of Guelph in southern Ontario. Bett grew up in Ottawa, near the federal government’s Central Experimental Farm which is the central research station for Canada’s Department of Agriculture. “Roaming free” around the farm encouraged Bett’s early interest in crops.

“In Saskatchewan, we have a global epicentre of lentil genomics and we work with collaborators around the world,” says Bett. For example, Bett and her team currently work with AGT Food and Ingredients – the Regina-based pulse processor and a Prairie success story. Bett is also collaborating with the Italian food giant Barilla – the world's largest pasta producer – on alternatives to durum wheat in pasta for gluten-free diets.

Pulses are the dried, edible seeds of legume plants and are both high in protein and fibre, and low in fat. The most common pulse varieties are dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. By volume, India, China and Brazil are the countries that consume the most pulses.

After four years of intensive research in lentil genetic diversity, Bett’s previous LSARP entitled the Application of Genomics to Innovation in the Lentil Economy (AGILE) recently wrapped up. The goal of AGILE was to provide Canadian farmers with faster access to better lentil varieties that excel under Canada-specific growing conditions. Bett’s co-lead researcher on AGILE was Albert Vandenberg, also from USask and her co-lead on the EVOLVES project.

Total funding for EVOLVES is $7.4 million. This includes co-funding from the Western Grains Research Foundation, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, BASF, USask, the Global Institute for Food Security, Marche Polytechnic University (Italy), Palacky University Olomouc (Czech Republic), and AGT Food and Ingredients.

LSARPs are major Genome Canada funding opportunities that last four years and are administered by the regional centre where the research is taking place. In the case of AGILE and EVOLVES, that’s Genome Prairie. At the heart of both projects are the sustainability benefits of lentils. “Pulses are fun to work with and a nice package for nutritional attributes,” explains Bett.

Lentil producers from central Asia (the region that consists of former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) still have the benefit of proximity to India and China where millions of people eat lentils daily.

“Through EVOLVES we can respond to a competitive global market – in terms of lentil size, colour and other specific quality traits – Canadian producers can have an advantage. EVOLVES can help the Canadian pulse industry’s goal of diversifying market outlets and creating price stability. We can’t compete on volume and low pricing, but we can tailor make what people what in their lentils,” says Bett.

Bett and her bioinformatics team at USask have also created KnowPulse – an innovative web-resource focused on diversity data for pulse crop improvement. Find out more at knowpulse.usask.ca.