In the fields of Norfolk a race is on to save the pea

It's crunch week for our favourite vegetable as thousands of tons could go to rot. David Randall reports
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The Independent Online

After 10,000 years in cultivation, several centuries as the nation's most fun vegetable, a starring part in the birth of genetics, a pioneering role in the history of convenience food, and an incidental career as a contraceptive, the pea is in trouble.

After 10,000 years in cultivation, several centuries as the nation's most fun vegetable, a starring part in the birth of genetics, a pioneering role in the history of convenience food, and an incidental career as a contraceptive, the pea is in trouble.

One of Britain's biggest frozen pea processors has gone into receivership and more than 12,000 acres of the crop – almost 20 per cent of UK production – could be wasted. The harvest is due to start this week, so there are just days left to rescue it. Nearly 150 East Anglian growers are now anxiously awaiting the outcome of talks to reopen the Albert Fisher factory in King's Lynn. If they do not succeed, their prime peas will be fit only for animal fodder, worth a quarter of the usual price. The race to save the pea is on.

One nerve centre – and given the present anxiety in Norfolk it is no exaggeration to call it that – of this rescue attempt, is the low, flint farmhouse of Mike Attew, chairman of the Aylsham Growers' Association, which represents nearly 50 pea farmers. Sitting in his kitchen, juggling a couple of mobiles as the calls come in from his members, the receivers, and local MPs, his open face has the look of exasperation that is now as much a mark of the British farmer as weather-blown cheeks. "It's crazy," he says. "Here's a crop which is neither subsidised nor oversupplied, and we might lose it. And lose it to foreign imports. All at a time when British agriculture is under pressure." He does not explain the last sentence, but then he doesn't need to. Last year the livestock industry was beaten up, by foot and mouth; this year it's arable farming's turn to suffer. After crop rotation, this is disaster rotation.

On Friday spirits brightened with news that a Belgian firm's offer for the Fisher plant had been accepted in principle. Confirmation of a deal will not come until tomorrow, the very week when the harvest is due to start. But if any group of people is used to working against the clock, it's pea farmers. Growing for the frozen food market means Mike's members have just a few hours to get the peas from the field to the factory. Further north are Holbeach Marsh Growers, who have even less time. They grow "speedy peas", which must be picked by pea-viner machines, shelled, put into trailers, transferred to lorries, driven to the processing factory at King's Lynn, sorted, washed, heated, dried, and then frozen – all in just 150 minutes. They are then – or were due to be until last week – shipped out as Asda, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer own-brands.

That is how the pea reaches our tables these days. But, in a way, the journey started 10,000 years ago with an unwitting piece of genetic modification. The natural habit of the wild pea, pisum sativum, is for its pod, upon ripening, to explode open. When hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent (modern-day Iraq) started to collect the pea, they picked those which had ripened but whose pods had not popped. They also planted these mutants; and so, over generations, a pea evolved that remained firmly in the pod. And by cultivating only the choicer specimens, early farmers developed a pea that was 10 times heavier than the wild one.

The Romans brought the pea to Britain, and for centuries it was, in its smaller, green forms, a high-priced delicacy. It also became refined in other ways, being known in English as "pease" until some unknown intelligence decided that this was the plural and dropped the "se". Gradually, more forms were introduced, and different ways of cooking them developed. (Hence mushy peas, always popular in the North, but unknown to cosmopolitan southerners such as Peter Mandelson MP. He was one of those said, in many an apocryphal story, to have caused hilarity in fish and chip shops by pointing to the green goo and asking "for some of that guacamole, please".)

By the 18th century there were enough varieties of pea for Thomas Jefferson to grow 30 of his favourites at Monticello, Virginia; and in England, Victorian nurserymen fed country-house estates and the new gardens of the middle-classes with scores more, from Little Gem to the towering Ne Plus Ultra.

All, of course, were the result of selective breeding, a process whose workings were yet a mystery. It took an obscure Austrian monk called Gregor Mendel to unlock the secret. Fascinated by the way in which organisms can be bred to have certain characteristics, he started experimenting. Mendel chose to work with the pea, and his trials with hybrids of dwarf and tall varieties taught him that parent plants pass on dominant or recessive features. A new field of study was born: genetics.

This was not the only surprise that the pea had for science. If eaten in sufficient quantity, they turned out to interfere with oestrogen production. Mice that are fed a diet of 20 per cent peas suffer a halving of their birth rate, and if the dose goes up to 30 per cent they stop breeding altogether. In Nepal, where peas are more of a staple than perhaps they should be, the birth rate has been static for decades.

In that country, a convenience food is one that stops you starving. In the West, more elaborate arrangements are needed to qualify for the name, and so we come to one of the other great heroes in pea history: Clarence Birdseye. A New York-born naturalist who flunked college, his observations of how the Inuit in Labrador, Canada, used ice to store fish gave him the idea for flash-freezing food. It wasn't long before his company put frozen peas on the market. The world, long-used to the fleshy, tasteless gob-stoppers sloshing about on school dinner plates, responded with gratitude to these new, sweet peas whose size and texture also made them ideal tea-time playmates. Britons now consume 160,000 tons a year, making peas the nation's favourite frozen vegetable.

Not that it seems that way, as Mike Attew and I stand in a field of Bikini peas in Hanworth, just above North Walsham. There are no flowers as yet, for these are destined to be harvested in the last of the six weeks of cropping. Neither are there any weeds; when you are growing for the supermarkets, no impurities are allowed. Nearby, Mike's association members have plants that have grown to the regulation foot or so, and their pods are almost ripe. Just a few days will see them right. By then the outcome of talks over the processing plant will be known. If there's a hitch, the crop will be animal fodder. If it goes through, hundreds of jobs will be saved. Here's hoping that the Norfolk pea wins this year's difficult race.