Unlike their many-coloured garden cousins, which produce poisonous seeds, the white lupins produce non-toxic seeds with a high content of protein and oil, suitable for animal feed.
Although existing varieties of white lupins are already grown commercially in the southern parts of Europe, in more northern climes they do not ripen in time. This new lupin, bred in France in a government-funded project, has the potential, however, to replace the 30 million tonnes per annum of soya beans which the European Union imports from North and South America. The UK's share of these imports is about two million tonnes, costing £350m.
"In the UK, we have tried for the past 30 years to grow lupin as a crop, but always failed," said George Milford, who is leading the lupin programme at the Institute of Arable Crop Research in Rothamsted, Hertfordshire. Work at Rothamsted revealed two problems with the existing varieties. The branching structure means that the plants are self-shading, which slows ripening. They also flower sequentially, with a consequent spread in seed ripening.
In France, lupins will ripen but the sequential flowering makes the yields unreliable. The French breeding programme expanded on the work at Rothamsted to develop non-branching plants that produce all their flowers simultaneously.
The new lupin is sown in September and harvested 12 months later. The UK rights to two new lines of lupin have been acquired by Dalgety, which is working with Mr Milford and his team to evaluate the white lupin. Two further lines have been acquired by the agricultural merchants Goreham-Bateson, and Mr Milford said other companies are in talks with the French to licence further lines for the UK.
Commercial development of a new crop usually involves a series of expensive plantings to determine its geographic range. Rothamsted has short-circuited this process by using the database at the Soil Survey and Land Research Centre at Cranfield Universityto model the plant's range.
Half of the 14 million hectares of arable land in England and Wales is suited to the cultivation of the new lupins. They will grow in Scotland, and there are currently test plantings near Perth and Aberdeen, but Scotland is not part of the soils database.
Yields are between 4 and 5 tonnes per hectare, with a protein content of 36 to 40 per cent and an oil content of 10 to 12 per cent.
Lupins do not need much fertiliser. Like peas and beans, they are legumes, which can produce their own nitrates from nitrogen in the air. Their roots also secrete acids that dissolve mineral iron, phosphorus and potassium, which is not normally availableto plants.
Mr Milford said lupins would be suitable for growing in rotation with cereal crops, especially in nitrate sensitive areas such as East Anglia. Although lupins produce nitrates, they do this at a lower rates than, say, peas or beans. This means that some nitrate stays in the soil - to fertilise the following cereal crop - but there is little runoff into the water supply. The aim is to have the white lupins in commercial production by 1997. The seed companies are already lobbying processing companies to handle the crop.
Mr Milford said that lupin production in the UK could be considered sustainable with 100,000 hectares producing four tonnes per hectare - but he believes that white lupins could eventually compete with oil seed rape at 300,000 hectares per year, growing varieties that could produce up to six tonnes per hectare.Reuse content