Prairies could be plant-based protein superpower

Protein Innovations Canada aiming to make Western Canada the world’s ‘leading source of high-quality proteins’

Allison Ammeter doesn’t understand why there isn’t more domestic pulse processing on the Canadian Prairies.

“As a farmer, I’m really proud of the fact that I grow good, safe food that’s enjoyed around the world,” said the past chair of Alberta Pulse Growers, who farms near Sylvan Lake.

“But it’s always really ticked me off that everything we grow is loaded into a grain car and sent somewhere else.

“We don’t have to ship it to someone else to do the work. We can be doing this here in Alberta.”

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Over the years, Alberta’s agriculture industry has dipped its toe into value-added processing for the “bigger-picture things,” said Ammeter, who chaired the national committee for the International Year of Pulses in 2016 and was recently given the Pulse Promoter Award by Saskatchewan Pulse Growers for her work on behalf of the sector.

“We’re cleaning our grain on the Prairies, and that’s adding value,” she said. “Our pulses are being split and bagged. That’s not what I would call high value added, but it’s sure a lot better than just shipping them in container cars.”

Canola crushing has an economic impact of about $1.3 billion annually and thanks to a booming craft beer market, malt barley is another growing value-added industry in Alberta, she added.

“I look at the oat industry, the flax industry, the hemp industry — all of them are doing it.”

There is tremendous potential for fractionation of pulses, a relatively new technology that separates seeds into protein, fibre, and starch, which can then be used in food products, she said.

“I believe we’re now looking at value adding not just in splitting and cleaning, but value adding in looking at what we can do with the protein and other fractions,” she said. “There are so many extra things we can do. We can go much further.”

And adding value would put money into farmers’ pockets because it would boost demand.

“Right now, we’re shipping our peas for $8 or $9 a bushel. I think if we send them to a fractionation plant, we’re going to see more,” she said. “When’s the last time you heard about farmers selling their canola for $6 a bushel? It’s because we’re adding value.”

‘Big-time’ potential

Some argue that the province doesn’t have the technology to do value-added pulse processing, said Ammeter.

“But I look around and I see the oilpatch, which has some of the most interesting technology and cutting-edge innovation in the world. We don’t have the technology to do value-added food? I don’t buy that one.”

Still others argue that Alberta is too far away from consumer markets, that it’s cheaper and easier to transport raw grains than value-added goods.

“OK, maybe we shouldn’t be canning beans in the Prairies because they’re a heavy thing to ship, but then I look at pharmaceuticals and colourants (dyes and pigments) that we’re shipping out in containers on a train that’s straight to Chicago in 10 hours,” she said.

“As a farmer, I go back to the question of ‘why can’t we do this?’ I know we can add value here.”

The federal government seems to think so too. Last month’s budget pledged $950 million over five years to support ‘superclusters,’ research and development hubs that will add value to Canada’s economy. The pulse sector has created a multi-province partnership — called Protein Innovations Canada — that is ready to make the case that, through this ‘supercluster’ funding, the western Prairies could become a leading global supplier of plant-based proteins and food ingredients.

“It’s a concept that we hope we can turn into reality,” said Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio, a bioresearch investment firm based in Saskatchewan.

“We want to position Canada as the leading source of high-quality proteins. We have the capacity to produce crops that have proteins that are considered to be of value for downstream uses.

“This is a growth area. There’s growth potential here big time.”

With the growing consumer interest in healthy, sustainably produced food products, pulses and other plant-based proteins are a good-news story — one that has been largely underdeveloped to this point.

“This is an area of growing interest, but there’s only a tiny portion of our pulse capacity that is turned into ingredients. We have a long way to go,” said Keller.

Momentum building

Organizations like Pulse Canada, Cigi (Canadian International Grains Institute), and the Leduc Food Processing Centre have already done research on utilizing pulse fractions in food products. As well, French company Roquette announced in January it plans to build a $400-million pea protein-processing plant in Portage la Prairie, Man.

“We see a lot of signs that there’s increasing interest in investment in Western Canada in pulse fractionation,” said Keller, a well-known agricultural researcher in biotechnology development who has led numerous major research efforts.

“There’s already evidence of industry investment, so we need to continue and build momentum in this area.”

If funded, Protein Innovations Canada will set up a home base in the Prairies and partner with industry leaders and key stakeholders in the sector to invest in research and market development for plant-based proteins from pulses, canola, and hemp.

“We have the potential to produce these products, and our strategy has to be to add value first to ingredients and then beyond,” said Keller.

It could be “really big business,” he added.

“Using canola as an example through to 2050, we estimate that we would be able to have 20 million tonnes of high-quality protein. From 2020 to 2050, this is a trillion-dollar industry that we’re looking at, and it will be close to the same in pulses.”

Investing in plant-based proteins is simply a no-brainer, he said.

“There’s a big opportunity for this to be based on the Canadian Prairies,” said Keller. “We have the land, we have the expertise, and we have the interest. Now we just need the push.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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