What would Israeli cuisine be without the chickpea — the major component of falafel, hummus and more? Humble though it may be, the chickpea plays a major role not only in the Middle East, but across Asia and especially in India, where hundreds of millions rely on it to fill their daily nutritional needs.

Now, a breakthrough in chickpea breeding by Hebrew University Professor Shahal Abbo and his team promises to raise chickpea crop yields, lengthen their growing season, make more land available to farmers for crops, and even produce a more nutritious pea.

And unlike many crops improvements today, the Hebrew U breakthrough did not use genetic manipulation to create a better chickpea.

The chickpea ranks second among the world’s food legumes, just behind the soybean, and is popular worldwide, especially in South Asia. When a chickpea is combined with other food, such as wheat, the amino acids in both join to build a complete protein usable by the body. And in fact, hundreds of millions of people rely on chickpeas and wheat for their protein supply. So an upgrade to the chickpea could go a long way toward fostering better nutrition for many of the world’s poorest.

Using natural selection techniques, the Hebrew University team led by Abbo, in conjunction with agricultural researcher David Bonfils, developed a method to cause the earlier germination of chickpeas. By doing so, the growing season for chickpeas is extended, and farmers can save water by using natural rainfall to help the crop grow during several critical growth stages.

In South Asia and northern Australia, chickpeas are predominantly grown in the post-rainy season on receding stored soil moisture, and toward the end of their growing cycle require a great deal of irrigation to complete the cycle. The team of agriculturalists developed a strain of chickpea that flowers earlier, in the colder, rainier weather of winter. As a result, the growing season for chickpeas is increased, and the plants can take advantage of the spring rains for watering.

“You can start growing these chickpeas in February,” said Abbo – giving farmers an eight-week, or even greater, jump on the growing season. “Farmers can use rainwater instead of irrigation to grow their crops. Chickpeas can also be more successfully integrated as a rotation crop for wheat,” he said, adding that this specific crop rotation method used by farmers for generations helps to produce healthier wheat and chickpea crops.

Because the hardier strain of chickpeas can be planted in the winter season, the breakthrough automatically extends the areas where the crop can be grown. Semi-desert areas that get a lot of rain in the winter — for example, the Negev — can now support chickpea growth at a relatively reasonable cost, since farmers in those areas do not have to rely solely on irrigation. And because the crop gets more moisture earlier on, the resulting chickpeas are bigger, with a higher lutein content (lutein is an antioxidant carotenoid that helps, among other things, to improve vision).

Hebrew University stressed that the development work for the new strain was done using natural selection techniques; there was no genetic manipulation of the chickpeas to make them hardier. A spokesperson said that genetic modification use would have closed off the market for the new strain to many countries, especially in Europe, where governments have taken steps to curb use or outright ban GM crops.

The breakthrough will be marketed by Yissum, Hebrew University’s Research and Development technology transfer company. “Chickpea is not only a staple diet component in large areas of the globe, but also an important health food in Western countries and its consumption is rising steadily,” said Yaacov Michlin, CEO of Yissum. “The new varieties developed by Prof. Abbo using non-GMO techniques are highly important for human health in developing countries, and may promote marketing in industrialized nations.

“We therefore anticipate that the new varieties developed at the Hebrew University offer a unique business opportunity,” Michlin said. “Yissum is now looking for partners for further development and commercialization of this invention.”