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Lupin crops soon to be reality in Alberta NOV 16 2020 | Producers | Agronomy and Blog Post

By Mark Olson

In the not too distant future, fields of lupin will start to appear in parts of Alberta. So, what is a lupin exactly, its area of adaptability in Alberta and potential market end uses?

Just like with field pea, lentil, faba bean, chickpea and dry bean, lupin fits into the category of pulse crops; annual grain legumes that fix nitrogen biologically from the air. When it comes to lupin, however, there are a number of plant physiological differences.

Globally there are 280 species of lupin, counting both annual and perennial with wild and domesticated kinds. It is common that the word “lupin” first conjures up the thought of ornamental flowers, but there are four of major significance: Lupinus albus (white), Lupinus luteus (yellow), Lupinus angustifolius (narrow leafed, blue) and Lupinus mutabilis (Andean pearl lupin). These agriculturally important species have been domesticated through breeding efforts; reducing their alkaloid levels, non-shattering pods and increasing soft seeds.

Lupin which have had alkaloids bred to lower levels are referred to as “sweet” lupin containing between 0.01% – 0.03% compared to the “bitter” lupin which contain 0.8 – 0.9% alkaloids.

Depending on the species, the seeds of lupin contain 30 – 40% protein, 25% fibre, 6 – 8% oil and 2% – 6% starch. This high level of protein with very little starch makes the crop appealing for protein fractionators struggling to find a market for the large quantities of by-product starch (field pea seed in comparison contains 18 – 26% protein and 35 – 40% starch).

Agronomic research in Alberta conducted by the department of Agriculture and Forestry has previously focused on L. angustifolius (narrow leafed, blue, sweet) lupin and in particular cv. Arabella. This species has white flowers with a blue tinge (the wild species, parentage, has blue flowers, hence the name). Unless otherwise specified, the term “lupin” will pertain specifically to ‘L. angustifolius’ in the rest of this article. 

Lupin can grow up to 1 metre (3 feet) in height, but many of the commercial varieties are shorter in height (by two thirds). Its growth is determinant in nature; meaning the plant has a defined number of days that it grows and then matures. In contrast the growth of white lupin (L. albus) is indeterminant, and the plant continues to grow and flower late into the growing season until it is terminated with a harvest aid product such Reglone (diquat).

Lupin has a moderately deep, thick tap root (some species have longer tap roots and more lateral roots) compared to many other crop kinds, increasing the crop’s ability to scavenge water and other much needed nutrients. Lupin is ‘solid stemmed’ which makes for great standability but may contribute to shatter loss (despite breeding efforts) at harvest if the crop is overripe.

Lupin responds well to moderate temperatures and moderate to high (not excessive) evenly consistent moisture throughout the growing season. In the drier areas of the province, (especially on land that is part of the Palliser Triangle1) yields will be too low, making production of the crop uneconomical. Even while the irrigated parts of the southern province could possibly manage the crop’s moisture requirements, the soil’s high pH (due to calcium carbonate parental material) negatively affects the nodulation and growth of L. angustifolius. For that reason, soils above pH 7.0 should be avoided.

Another consideration in the irrigation districts is that there is strong competition for acres with crops with higher net returns such as hybrid canola, sugar beet, potato, dry bean, sweet pea, sweet corn, hemp, quinoa and timothy hay for the export market making lupin economically unfeasible for farmers to include in the crop rotation. That being said, white lupin (L. albus) can tolerate higher soil pH (up to pH 7.8) and may have potential for seed production under irrigation, but no research has yet been undertaken to confirm this.

Narrow leafed blue lupin is a late maturing crop requiring 110 – 120 frost free days and for this reason it should be the first crop planted on the farm during the spring. The crop needs to be seeded no later than May 7 as 120 frost free days would take the crop to September 7 (the average fall frost date across north central Alberta) ideally not being exposed to a fall frost event. Be sure to check local climate information as to when the average first fall frost occurs in your area and if earlier adjust the seeding date accordingly.

When it comes to market end uses as a substitute crop or its ingredients, lupin has suitability as a feed and food, as well as having bio-industrial applications. This crop kind as a plant protein source is comparable to soybean. Lupin, being a part of the pulse crops family, when consumed may also have positive human health attributes similar to those which is being researched currently in diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome and obesity.

While feed no doubt is currently the crop’s single largest use, food uses as an alternative ingredient, especially high protein and fibre, have been developed in Europe and South America.

Lupin is commonly substituted for soybean in the feeding of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and farmed fish. Lupin is fed to dairy cattle in Japan, South Korea, Europe and Australia and the latter (as a whole grain) fed to sheep. The aquaculture industries in Australia, Chile and Canada have either already begun using lupin as ingredient in fish rations for salmon or are seriously considering doing so (in order to replace fish meal which is seen as unsustainable.) The reason for replacing traditional fish meal is that lupin has exceptional qualities for fish feed including higher protein content, low levels of anti-nutritional factors (phytic acid, saponins, lectins and trypsin inhibitors), higher phosphorous digestibility and retention and valuable ‘pelleting’ qualities.

Protein fortification of foods is increasing globally. Lupin, because of its high protein content, is considered an excellent raw product. Like all pulse crops as well, lupin is gluten free which will be of enormous benefit to those manufacturers of gluten free products. Inclusion of the crop’s fractions would be a complement to certain cereal ingredients, balancing their amino acid profile as well as acting as a possible egg substitute in breads, cakes, biscuits, pancake mixtures and pasta, making these foods more nutritious. The deep, rich yellow colour of lupin (L. angustifolius) flour is of considerable interest in pasta making and noodle dishes. In Europe, one manufacturer is using lupin protein isolates in the production of mayonnaise, cheese spreads, yogurt, drinks and ice cream as plant based a dairy alternative. Pickled or canned lupin, as well as using the flour as a substitute for chickpea in hummus, is currently being produced commercially in Canada. Likewise, packaged lupin flakes are available commercially for use in salads, dips and vegetarian dishes as a way to increase daily dietary fibre and protein requirements. As well, lupin has been tested successfully as fermented food products such as tempeh, tofu and miso.

Lastly, active ingredients from plants, in the form of extracts, for medical and therapeutic products in human and animal health is increasingly being sought after by manufacturing companies. A sweet lupin peptide extract is currently being produced from lupin without chemically modifying the protein itself. This ‘all-natural’ protein extract has unique functional properties and is being used cosmetically and in personal healthcare formulations. Inclusion of the protein extract in shampoo and conditioners is found to extend hair colouring.

In closing, the commercialization of lupin makes a lot sense on many fronts and will be a welcomed addition to the crop rotation in Alberta.

1Palliser Triangle refers to an area in driest region of the Canadian prairies (southwestern Manitoba to southwestern Alberta and north to Saskatoon) that was surveyed by Captain Palliser in the 1800s which he described as an area of land almost “uninhabitable” because of the dry conditions.

* Mark Olson, formerly of Alberta Agriculture, led several lupin-focused research projects and continues to be an advocate of the potential of lupin.