CHICKPEA, an ecological crop source of protein

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Chickpea is full of treasures. For example, its cooking juices found in tin cans are rich in albumin, the egg whites protein that keeps whites in snow. You can put this juice in snow to make a very successful vegan chocolate mousse without using eggs!
More usually, chickpeas are known in couscous, but where does it come from?

Portrait of chickpea, Cicer arietinum

Domesticated around 7000 years ago, chickpeas come from Turkey and the Middle East. It belongs to the botanical family of legumes like lentil or bean. Its Latin name, Cicer (pea) arietinum (de aries: ram) characterizes well the physical aspect of its grains with their two bumps recalling (at a distance) the horns of this mammal.

As it prefers the Mediterranean climates, it has mainly developed towards the south of Europe, the north of Africa, Australia, Asia and especially India which harvests more than 2/3 of the production World. But Canada also grows large areas. In France, this crop is underdeveloped (8600 hectares) but its agronomic advantages and especially the evolution of tastes and food habits herald a greater future. He is champion of protein richness (17 to 23%).

There are more than 20,000 varieties and cultivars of chickpea in the world! Beautiful resources among which find happiness to select the varieties of tomorrow. Two types of chickpeas are grown: Kabuli, the most common in France, with large seeds beige to white, and Dési, the majority in India, with small seeds from beige to brown through green.

Source of vegetable protein

In our regions, chickpea is almost consumed only in the form of raw or canned seeds, harvested dry at maturity. In India, on the other hand, chickpea is one of the main vegetables and is cooked in many forms: grains, flour, elaborate dishes such as hummus or falafel .

“In Europe, with diet changes to gluten-free or vegetarian diets, a dymanic is created around vegetable proteins . Chickpea is a great response to societal concerns “explains Hanan Gasmi, Marketing Manager of Top Semence , the only company to select this species in France.

Kabuli or Dési? “The biochemical composition of the grains is similar between the two types” says Charles Lemaire, breeder  : “they only differ in their color, the size of the grains, the appearance of their skin. Preferences in different parts of the world are consumer habits. “

Ecological culture par excellence

The chickpea is not very greedy in water. It is content with drying floors and makes it possible to develop difficult lands. In addition, it does not need nitrogen inputs because, like all legumes, it fixes the nitrogen of the air in its nodules, kinds of small balls that form on the surface of the roots thanks to the bacteria Rhizobium ciceri. As a result, it leaves a little nitrogen after it and the following crops, often cereals, are well liked and allow some savings of nitrogen fertilizer to the farmer.

Its cycle is short: sown in March, it is harvested at the end of July-beginning of August. It secretes malic acid that is unpleasant to insects and protects it naturally from most, but not all, of them, limiting applications of plant protection products.

Variety selection remains traditional

Despite all these advantages, the chickpea has remained undeveloped and limited to the south of France, forcing us to import the majority of the seeds for our consumption. “First and foremost, we must improve the yield of the crop, which also means improving the natural tolerance of the chickpea to the diseases and pests that can attack it,” explains the coach . The crisis of 2000 with infestations of the disease anthracnose remains in the memories. “We are looking for sources of resistanceamong the varietiesand wild plants: it takes time to make future varieties tolerant and even resistant. ” The process of selection is long: it takes 11 years of work before you can submit a variety candidate for registration, whose trials last another two years before being offered to farmers.

Another important criterion to improve is the size of the seeds, wanted by the canning industry.

Protein wealth is important for the market. Research on the components of the seed opens up prospects for new outlets that are just beginning to be imagined, together with the processing industry.

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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