Alberta is lagging behind the other Prairie provinces when it comes to plant protein processing — but the provincial government is working on it, says the agriculture minister.
“Whether it’s canola processing, plant proteins, greenhouses, agri-technology, hemp — there are numerous types of commodities that we’re trying to attract value-added investment domestically and internationally to set up shop here in Alberta,” said Devin Dreeshen.
“In our first budget, we created a $1.4-billion value-added investment target for the province, and to date, we’ve achieved $527 million in value-added investments in the province of Alberta that our investment team at Agriculture and Forestry has helped facilitate.
“We set a target, we’ve measured it, and we’re actively trying to increase value-added processing in the province.”
Dreeshen said the government has given a quarter-of-a-million-dollar grant to the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta to do “exploratory work,” given funding to the Food Processing Development Centre for fractionation equipment that companies can rent for developing products, and offers Canadian Agricultural Partnership grants for product development and for export initiatives.
“That goes to food processors who are thinking of purchasing a new piece of equipment or who want to expand or build a new facility,” he said.
Agriculture Financial Services Corporation also recently had its lending capacity increased by $800 million, he added.
“This increase puts them well over $3 billion of lending capacity, and we’ve really pressed AFSC to be active in trying to lend out that capital to value-added food processors across the province,” he said.
“Hopefully in the coming years, we’ll be able to see that capital put to good use.”
But raising the lending capacity isn’t enough, said NDP Ag Critic Heather Sweet.
“Asking them to take on more debt at a time where the province should be leading us in diversification just speaks to the fact that they’re not prioritizing supporting the ag industry,” said Sweet.
“The minister has relied heavily on the industry to be direct innovators, which means they need to put their money forward first. But the province needs to be the leader in this… We’ve seen it in other provinces, so it doesn’t make any sense for us not to be doing the same thing.”
The government should be offering financial incentives to attract more processing, she said.
“What we’re seeing in this provincial budget is that they’ve actually cut the line items in relation to agri-food processing,” said Sweet, calling that “extremely short sighted.”
But Dreeshen countered that the $815-million expansion of irrigation will attract new processing facilities.
“It will add about 200,000 new acres of irrigated land in the province, and that’s something that food processors really want to see — that certainty of irrigated land,” he said. “That’s a pretty exciting project to be a magnet for certain types of food processing here in the province.”
But the provincial government should be more directly involved in luring plant-protein processing to Alberta, said Sweet.
“To not have a plant and to not invest in plant proteins, I think, is short sighted. It’s really letting the agriculture industry down,” she said.
“For the province not to take this opportunity to lead in that diversification to make sure we’re making products here is a disservice.”
But Dreeshen predicted additional value-added processing will come and “at an even faster rate than we have had the last couple of years.”