A lack of fractionation plants isn’t the only thing holding back development of a plant protein-processing sector in Alberta.
Like fractionation, the province is falling behind on toll processors, companies that provide specialty processing and manufacturing for other companies.
“We need all that toll processing in Alberta in order to get the secondary and tertiary processing that springs up around fractionation plants,” said Allison Ammeter, former chair of the now defunct Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta.
“Otherwise what we’ll end up doing is fractionating our grain and then shipping away all the protein, starch, and fibre — and we’ll be right back to where we started.”
Very few processors do everything in house and so contract out some work. That can run the gamut from simple things (such as seed cleaning or packaging) to technical work such as spray drying starch.
Before it unexpectedly and abruptly lost its provincial funding this spring, the Plant Protein Alliance commissioned a study to determine what toll processing exists in Alberta and where some of the gaps might be.
“One of the things we realized very quickly was that, although everybody was focusing on fractionation plants — which we do need — what we also need is a lot of the supporting industry that allows the processing to spin up around the fractionation plants,” said Ammeter, a Sylvan Lake producer and longtime advocate for the pulse sector.
“For example, you’re not going to get something like Lovingly Made Ingredients in Calgary unless you’ve also got someone who can package the product they’re making and get it ready to send to market.”
The study found that, while the majority of the 34 surveyed companies in the province process raw agricultural commodities, only half offered toll processing services, for a total annual capacity of around 27,500 tonnes.
Cleaning accounted for more than 40 per cent of the processing activity, with between 15 to 30 per cent involving separating, grinding, conditioning, sifting, filtering, drying, extracting, or dehulling. Most companies that aren’t currently offering toll processing simply weren’t interested, while others cited technical reasons and market constraints for not diversifying their businesses.
That’s a barrier for plant protein processors and product manufacturers hoping to set up shop in Alberta, said Ammeter.
“They’re all having to outsource some things because they have to — we don’t have everything they need here,” she said. “I talked to a guy who made a real nice little high-protein bar, and he had to send it to Vancouver to get it packaged. That’s ridiculous. It’s not like Alberta can’t do these things.”
Addressing these gaps needs to be part of an overall value-added strategy for the province, she added.
“If all you’re focusing on is building a processing plant or a fractionation plant, you’re only partway there,” said Ammeter. “You have to build a successful cluster that’s got all the researchers, the lawyers, the accountants, the investors, the toll processors — all those people we don’t think of as being an important part of our cluster.”
That will require the provincial government to move forward on its value-added agriculture strategy, she said.
When the strategy was announced in February 2020, Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen said the government expected to attract $1.4 billion in private sector investment over four years. As part of that, Agriculture Financial Services Corporation has had its lending capacity increased but there have not been announcements of major new facilities similar to ones in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (although the government said in February it had “already achieved $527 million in new investment”).
The UCP government needs to do more, said Ammeter.
“We are having such a hard time trying to get our government to develop a strategy and give it a little bit more than lip service,” she said. “This won’t change until we have a government that stands up and says, ‘We are going to make it so that nothing leaves our province that hasn’t had value added to it.’”
Just as with fractionation plants, the window for attracting toll processors won’t stay open for long, she said.
“If we don’t get these toll processors, they go to other provinces. And then it’s the same risk as always — Saskatchewan and Manitoba will eat our lunch because they’re pushing it, and they’re doing a good job of it,” she said.
“If we don’t do this now while everything is happening, once the market is saturated, we are relegated to shipping our stuff to other provinces. We don’t want that. We want to do everything here.”