Plant processing advocate gets the axe

Ag minister praises Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta but then its funding gets pulled

Blindsided.

That's how Allison Ammeter felt after the province first confirmed — and then cancelled — funding for an agency set up to help attract plant-protein processing to Alberta.

And the move comes just weeks after the provincial ag minister held up the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta as a leading example of his government's effort to attract processors who, so far, have been setting up shop elsewhere on the Prairies.

"I didn't see it coming. Not even a little bit," said Ammeter, chair of the now-shuttered three-year-old organization. "They had told us we had funding, so we were in the throes of organizing our plans. And then March 31, we got a call that said there's no funding."

The about-face happened in just three weeks.

On March 10, the organization received a call from staff with the investment attraction branch of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry offering a grant of $250,000. The next day on a conference call with department staff, it asked for a higher amount but was told no more money was available.

"We could survive on $250,000 a year, but that's pretty bare bones," said Ammeter, adding the organization had only two staff. "We don't pay our directors a per diem. We don't have an office. We have no overhead like you would expect from an organization like this. We run lean."

The grant seemed to be confirmed by Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen in an interview with this paper in March.

He was responding to questions on why Manitoba and Saskatchewan have both attracted large-scale plant-protein fractionation facilities, but Alberta hasn't. Dreeshen responded, in part, by citing the efforts of the organization.

"We actually provide the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta a quarter of a million dollar grant to do their exploratory work to see if they can help in our efforts to attract value-added processing," Dreeshen said on March 12.

In the days that followed, the alliance submitted five projects to the department for consideration as requested, and after some back and forth, agriculture ministry staff indicated on March 24 that everything seemed to be in order and that a contract would be forthcoming.

Seven days later, a ministry official called back to say it wouldn't be receiving any funding after all.

"We didn't get a reason," said Ammeter. "We didn't get anything from them other than, 'We thought we had the money, but we don't. Sorry.'"

However, another event also happened during that period: The publication of the story Dreeshen was asked to respond to.

In it, both Ammeter and now former Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta CEO Dan Brewin called on the province to up its efforts to attract plant protein processing facilities — or risk missing the boat. Both said the province should emulate Manitoba and be more aggressive in attracting plant protein processors.

"I think Alberta has bent over backwards to support the energy industry, and I think it's time to say, 'Hey, we're growing all these crops that could contribute to an amazing plant-based food industry here,'" Ammeter said in the front-page story in the March 22 edition of Alberta Farmer.

When asked if those statements might have prompted the abrupt turnabout on funding, Ammeter said she doesn't know.

"I think there's a lot of conjecture out there as to why we didn't get it," she said. "We just don't know. We're not getting it, and we just don't know why."

Few answers

Dreeshen declined an interview request and instead an official from his office emailed a brief response to written questions.

"Over the last three years, Alberta's government provided the PPAA with nearly $800,000 in grants to cover expenses and webinars," the email stated. "During that time, they did great work and we thank them for their efforts."

That's similar to the response the alliance received from Dreeshen after asking for clarification on why the promise of funding was abruptly withdrawn.

"Since 2018, the Government of Alberta has provided $793,000 in start-up grant funding to the PPAA to support the emerging plant-based protein sector," Dreeshen stated in an April 7 email.

"However, due to the need to focus limited program funds on projects that directly support the value-added sector and encourage innovation and technological advancement, Agriculture and Forestry will not provide further operational funding to the PPAA."

The department encouraged the organization to submit future proposals under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program, but Ammeter said the non-profit didn't have the luxury of waiting for new CAP guidelines to be announced.

"We had told them, 'If we don't get core funding, we shut down.' We were extremely clear about that — that we could not continue without this funding," said Ammeter. "They knew it, so it's not a surprise to them that we've had to close down."

But attracting plant-protein processing remains a top government priority, the agriculture ministry official said in the email.

"We are currently working on six plant-protein investment cases which are valued at over $500 million and have the potential to create over 325 jobs," the email stated.

Her organization was making strides, too, said Ammeter, who is past chair of both Pulse Canada and Alberta Pulse Growers.

Its key role was to bring industry players together, she said, noting it had more than 150 members and had hosted a large number of networking events and workshops and, since the pandemic, webinars.

"We've seen people get funded because they met the right people at our events. We've seen them find the supply chain they needed," she said. "The value of connecting these people one to another is almost impossible to estimate.

"In the last three years, we moved the needle a lot. I have no regrets about what we did do — I only have regrets about all the great things still on our wish list that we didn't get the time to do."

Businesses in the sector will "find a way to do it on their own," but additional connections that were being made — with post-secondary institutions, researchers, investors, banks, and other resources — will be hard to replace, said Ammeter.

"The businesses will keep going. These business owners will continue. But what will not continue is the ability for them to network with other like-minded business owners in an Alberta-based forum like we had set up."

Nevertheless, Ammeter said she is still hopeful that Alberta will someday be a hub for plant-protein processing on the Prairies.

"We're a tremendous place to come and invest," she said. "We grow all of these great food products. We have clean water and multiple sources of energy for processing. We're close to ports to get our product to market.

"We have a lot going for us here."

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

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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