At the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), researchers recently released the first draft version of the lentil genome as a result of a collaborative, international genome sequencing project involving researchers from around the globe.
“The lentil genome assembly will provide important information to help us better understand this crop,” said Kirstin Bett, U of S professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and project lead of the international lentil sequencing effort in a January press release. “More importantly, it will lead to development of genomic tools that will help improve breeding practices and accelerate varietal development.”
Dr. Bert Vandenberg of the Crop Development Centre (CDC) is another of the researchers involved in the genome project. He is the only lentil breeder in Canada, and one of only three in North America, working on extensive lentil breeding research. “In lentils we are operating on many fronts,” he says. “Our central theme of course is the ability to improve both yield and understanding the genetic basis of quality traits, agronomic traits and disease resistance.”
There are emerging issues, such as a rise in the incidence of root rot, and Vandenberg’s team is working to develop better resistance to this and other diseases in new varieties. “As acres expand our workload is expanding as well,” says Vandenberg. “We are seeing resistant weeds, so we need new herbicide tolerance. We are going to see five million acres of lentils this year, so that’s going to create new problems if people are growing lentils in places where they never thought they would,” he says.
Canada is the world’s largest exporter of lentils, and Saskatchewan produces 95 per cent of the Canadian crop. Statistics Canada reports that Canadian lentil exports from August to November last year totalled a record 1.36 Mt, 65 per cent more than the amount exported during the same period in 2014. Export demand is expected to remain strong in 2016 and seeded acres could top five million in Saskatchewan alone this year.
Prices for lentils have been strong over the past few years, with huge growth in export markets such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as a result of increasing demand and crop shortfalls in these countries due to drought.
“Lentils are very profitable for growers at the moment,” says Sherrilyn Phelps, agronomy and seed program manager, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Association (SPGA). “That’s why there’s an interest in lentil research. It’s a relatively new crop on the Prairies, and there are still things that we’re trying to figure out, and issues we’ve come across that we haven’t looked at in the past. We are working on taking lentils to the next level and sustain production here in the province.” SPGA has provided more than $2.4 million in funding towards lentil genomic research.
Vandenberg says that lentil consumption is rapidly increasing — at a rate five times higher than human population growth — partly driven by the fact that lentils are one of only a few pulses that cook quickly. “We’re going to see continued rising consumption, so we are engaging in doing what we need to do to have a stronger industry in Canada,” says Vandenberg. “We are looking at a business development model to expand the role that Canada can play in the milling and de-hulling industry. Then if we are going to be de-hulling how do we add value to the other pieces of the seed that will be left behind.”
Vandenberg says that there is a lot of scope for further research to improve the agronomics, quality and disease resistance in lentils. “A lot more can be done with continuing, strategic investments to make the industry stronger,” he says. “Lentil is a small crop with not a large research community. There is definitely scope to expand that.”