The UK pea crop is in decline. From around 100,000ha two decades ago, the area of protein peas grown is now less than half.
Farmers are reluctant to grow a crop that gives inconsistent yields and, with greening policies that limit the tools available to ensure reliable returns, the area is unlikely to recover.
Peas, however, is a crop with important health and environmental benefits. In the national interest we need the pea crop to expand. It has the potential to produce high yields, but greater support for a more targeted approach to research and development is needed.
Canadian work has shown consuming 130g of cooked pulses per day (half a can of garden peas or baked beans) can reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes by 7% and coronary heart disease by 5%, in addition to reductions in cancers and obesity.
Pea products are also gluten free, high fibre and a source of plant protein.
As legumes, peas fix their own nitrogen, reducing farming’s greenhouse gas emissions and providing nutrient for the following crops in the rotation. They help reduce air pollution levels, as required by government.
Their root system works with Rhizobia and other soil flora to improve soil structure. As a spring-sown crop, they also aid the control of weeds and pests on arable farms.
However, recent focus by government and the public on the environmental “public goods” and so-called “greening measures” is reducing farmers’ ability to grow a reliable and profitable pea crop.
Restrictions and bans on the use of established products such as Diquat, Thiram and Wakil mean growers have few tools left to tackle agronomy problems at the right time and in the most cost-effective way.
As a relatively minor crop and with the high cost of obtaining product approval, the agro-chemical industry has little incentive to introduce new products, far less research new active ingredients for peas.
The greening of field margins with pollen- and nectar-rich plants, although desirable in many ways, can lead to a natural bridge for pests and diseases to overwinter and attack the pea crop, with little remedy available to growers.
Without the ability to strongly defend the pea crop from weevils, aphids, foot rots, downy mildew and so on growers find yields unreliable and hence are reluctant to grow peas.
Work undertaken over the past three years by the industry-funded YEN Peas project has indicated several key areas to improve pea yields.
These include care with establishment, soil management to aid rhizobial development and crop nutrition, especially for some key micronutrients.
There is a need for further research and development work to help growers overcome the restrictions arising from greening measures.
As a relatively minor crop, this needs government support. Other countries such as Canada, France and Denmark have adopted priority R&D strategies for their pulse crops.
To meet our aims for a heathier society and a more sustainable farming industry, we need to do the same.
Unless Defra secretary Michael Gove gives priority to development work on peas, his true legacy could be the demise of a crop vital to the future health of both people and the environment in the UK.