- Israeli plant genome editing company BetterSeeds created a type of cowpea — also known as black-eyed pea — that stands up straighter and can be harvested the same way as soybeans.
- Cowpeas are high in protein with a tolerance for drought and heat. Soybeans, on the other hand, grow best in temperate climates and need large quantities of water and fertilizer. According to a statement from BetterSeeds, soy yields are projected to drop 30% in the next decade due to global warming.
- Historically, plant bioengineering has focused on improving crop yields or making plants more resistant to water and climate conditions. Lately, companies have used bioengineering to make plants better for people to eat from a nutritional, taste and convenience perspective.
While soy is an important commodity crop, the growing conditions it needs — and the widespread global reliance on it — makes it vulnerable. In the last year, soy supply and prices suffered because of a drought in South America, which supplies half of the world’s supply of the crop.
Cowpeas, of which black-eyed peas are a variety, are widely grown and consumed, but are considered another legume variety in the general U.S. diet. The crop, which is thought to be one of the longest cultivated by humans, is native to sub-Saharan Africa and grown and consumed in larger quantities in that part of the world. In California, farmers growing the crop get about 3,800 to 4,800 pounds of biomass per acre, according to the UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program. It’s also seen as an important cover crop, naturally bringing nitrogen to soil and potentially improving soil quality where it is planted.
Researchers have also long looked at the possibility of using the cowpea for something more than just as a legume. A 1996 paper in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition examines how cowpea flour could be used to boost nutrition in a variety of products. Other research in the decades since has affirmed the idea that the crop could be utilized as a nutritional protein.
But in order for cowpea to be used in this way, it needs to be cultivated in larger amounts. First, it needs yields that could allow food scientists and formulators to work with it. And then, potentially, yields that could make it a much more ubiquitous crop. BetterSeeds’ variety, which the company says will be test planted in the United States this spring, could allow that to begin happening.
BetterSeeds uses the gene-editing technology CRISPR to make changes in the DNA of plants, creating seeds with desired traits. The company has also made a bioengineered version of seeds for medicinal cannabis, which are being studied in the U.S. and Canada.
“Conventional breeding and the use of past genetic engineering technologies have reached their glass ceiling to optimize crops,” BetterSeeds CEO Ido Margalit told The Times of Israel last year.
Food products made through bioengineering — which is sometimes controversial — are genetically modified and can be referred to as GMO, even though the method of making genetic changes has evolved significantly since the term was first used to describe food in the 1990s.
Considering that there are prominent consumer groups opposed to bioengineered food, including the Non-GMO Project, the bioengineered aspect may bring acceptance problems for BetterSeed’s crops. But it may make no difference to consumer opinion. After all, according to USDA, more than 90% of U.S. soybeans — and most other commodity crops — come from genetically modified varieties.