Could an Israeli Startup’s Better Pea Save the World From Cow Farts?

The world needs protein sources that don’t emit intestinal gas, so Equinom is developing protein-rich chickpeas, lentils and other legumes with nary a genetic engineer in sight

A cow frolics in a meadow near Tuebingen, southern Germany, October 18, 2017.
SEBASTIAN GOLLNOW/AFP

Western consumers will be relieved they won’t have to eat grasshoppers for protein as cows are herded into the doghouse because of their involuntary methane emissions. An Israeli startup has come up with a way to jack up the protein content of certain legumes without resorting to genetic engineering.

It’s no joke: Cow farming is being blamed as a major source of emissions causing global warming. Scientists are urging people to cut down on beef in favor of plant-based protein. But there isn’t much out there in nature.

Chickpeas, lentils, cowpeas, mung beans and yellow peas developed by Israeli startup Equinom contain around 50 percent more protein than commercial varieties, says the company, which was founded in 2012 near Rehovot in the center of the country.

Equinom CEO Gil Shalev
Osnat Krasnanski

Soybeans were eschewed because of their allergenic properties, market saturation and not-rare consumer aversion, Equinom founder and CEO Gil Shalev told Haaretz.

Wild wheat famously has a higher protein content than domesticated variants, but in the Land of the Legume, naturally occurring species aren’t relevant. They’re exotics, like the wild tomato, which is green and poisonous, Shalev notes. Also, wild legumes aren’t generally higher in protein content.

Even now, legume farmers seek yield, not nutritive content, Shalev adds. Beans are still used in Asia to make noodles and glue, for instance, so developers sought to ramp up starch, not protein.

The same applies to Canada, the world’s main source of the yellow pea. Equinom set out to increase protein content in legumes other than the despised soybean without compromising yield.

As eating beef starts to become embarrassing, and soy remains unbeloved, “we sought alternatives that aren’t science fiction,” Shalev says.

Pea plants of Israeli startup Equinom, 2017.
Nir Melamed

Outdoing nature by natural means

In the era of DIY genetic engineering, how did Equinom achieve a non-engineered high-protein product that outperforms nature, and quickly at that?

Equinom locates the many genes involved in protein content and, working with computer simulations, models the interaction between these genes. It picks plants, each with different desirable qualities, and hybridizes them, using classic methods possibly going back thousands of years.

The plants it hybridizes may come from different parts of the world entirely, but there’s not a genetic engineer in the room. Having created a variant, it commercializes it and registers a patent, based on the genetic combination that never existed in nature.

“We started with yellow peas, in Canada, then turned to other legumes,” Shalev says. The high-protein pea variants are still in development.

Equinom also developed and commercialized high-yield sesame, which – crucially – can be mechanically harvested. When normal sesame ripens it spills its seed onto the ground, which has to be collected manually.

That’s why sesame is grown almost exclusively in the developing world. A key client for Equinom’s high-yields sesame is none other than PepsiCo, Shalev says, not for soda of course but for the 50 percent it owns in the Sabra Dipping Company.

“Big companies, like Monsanto for instance, engineer a new molecule, locate and modify genes to provide added value, and introduce them into variants using genetic engineering,” Shalev says. “Its techniques can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. We don’t engage in a single molecule or gene – you’ll never increase protein in peas using a single gene.”

Shalev adds that Equinom’s classically bred hybrid variants, albeit designed on the fast track using bioinformatics, don’t require more water or nutrients, for instance. Like all legumes, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with fungi to fix nitrate in the soil.

Shalev isn’t worried about competition; he says he doesn’t know of any other company doing anything like what Equinom is doing. Its latest financing was provided by Israel-based venture capital fund Fortissimo Capital.

Equinom, founded in 2012, had previously raised $2.25 million from seed development company Hazera and private investors. It will use the money to pursue commercialization of its pea products and more development.

What next? More legumes. “The market today shows demand for vegetable protein ... but there are no solutions other than soybeans,” Shalev says. His company has already gone beyond that.