Critics are calling it “corporate welfare,” but the supporters of a protein supercluster say $150 million-plus in federal funding will turn pulses into the next canola.
There’s never complete buy-in for this sort of government action, but projects like this typically aren’t possible without government funding, said Ron Styles, acting president of Protein Industries Canada.
“You don’t find many places where these types of programs don’t have some form of government support,” said Styles.
“These ventures are very, very risky, and private companies are looking for some sort of return. In the initial phases, they may not believe the return is there, so you need government participation.”
The federal Liberal government announced last month it will give $950 million to five superclusters over the next five years. (The other four focus on artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, digital technology, and oceans-based industries.)
That announcement was panned by some as a giveaway, with National Post columnist Andrew Coyne saying such schemes are based on the faulty assumption “that governments know better than private investors how and where to allocate capital,” and others criticizing the lack of detail on how the money will be spent.
But Protein Industries Canada says it has already secured more than $400 million in matching private funding.
And while the specifics — including exactly how much federal cash it will get — aren’t nailed down yet, Styles said his group expects that 60 per cent of the money will be used to improve processing technology. (Three other areas — sustainable production; improving protein quality and yield; and marketing — will split the remaining 40 per cent.)
“It would be premature to point to very specific technologies until we have had time to work more closely with our stakeholders to arrive at decisions or conclusions on what fits best,” said Styles. “Starting later this year, we will be engaging our stakeholders more formally both as a group and individually to sort these questions out.”
But very promising technology could make Canada a world leader in processing protein ingredients from pulses as well as from hemp, oats, and canola, he said.
“It’s about both improving existing processing through the introduction of new technologies such as AI and machine learning, plus adding associated systems that address issues such as traceability,” said Styles. “We need to bring in new processing facilities and technologies for specific crop proteins where none exist on the Prairies at the present time.”
That sort of effort would build on the already considerable investment in pulse fractionation — the process that separates out the protein, starch, and fibre from pulse seeds (primarily peas at present) to meet the growing demand for plant-based ingredients, said Alan Hall, new initiatives and pro-ject hunter with the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund.
“We’ve got five plants that are in various stages of being built on the Prairies as we speak, and that’s a fairly recent thing,” said Hall.
He compares it to the canola industry, which started out exporting raw seed. But then the first crushing plant came online, then another, and then another. There are now 14 crush plants in Canada processing about 10 million tonnes of canola every year.
The only difference with pulses is how quickly fractionation plants are being built, he said.
“These processing facilities seem to be coming on stream at a faster rate than what the canola industry did over the last three decades,” said Hall.
“It’s the same process, but it seems to be ramped up. I’m still in amazement that five plants are going in on the Prairies just focused on peas.
“In the canola world, it probably took 15 years to get to five plants.”
Hall credits this boom to the growing shift toward plant-based proteins in consumer diets. What was initially thought to be a short-term fad has become a longer-term trend, with plant-based protein commanding a $13-billion market around the world.
“The international markets are really starting to pick up on plant proteins as a viable source of protein in human food. It’s really catching fire,” said Hall, adding pulse consumption in Canada has gone up 30 per cent over the last three years.
“It’s the consumer who’s driving this thing. And the processors are now seeing there’s a pretty good market there and they can make a pretty good profit.”
An argument could be made that the private sector is capable of expanding the plant protein processing sector on its own. But Styles argues the sector isn’t growing nearly as fast as it could.
“If you look at protein processing here in Western Canada, there’s not a lot, and what is there could be improved quite substantially,” said Styles. “There’s not one single area that doesn’t need some assistance in terms of improving the processing. This is simply one more avenue to do it.
“We’re here to work with the industry to address some of those challenges and allow for these plants to develop in Western Canada.”
That process will also involve other members of Protein Industries Canada — there are more than 120, including farm groups, universities, and other industry players.
“We are going to have to work with the industry to sort out the specific types (of technologies) since a number are being worked on,” said Styles, adding that includes examining “the costs of that new technology as well as the specific technology that makes sense for the Prairies and even how that technology might need to be adapted.”
These efforts will directly benefit farmers, he said.
“If you can take some of these products, move them up the value chain, and use them in a way that adds value, that’s going to help your farmers and improve returns,” said Styles.
“It makes all the sense in the world to do the processing here if the crops are here.”