Demand For Plant-based Protein Takes Off: Is Canada Ready?

In terms of our current crop mix, Canada is growing the right thing at the right time to meet much of the current global demand for plant protein. While Canada has long been a leader in providing raw pulse commodities for export, the rapidly soaring demand for plant-based protein begs the question: can Canadian agriculture meet that need? Bill Greuel thinks so.

“Canada is a leader in plant protein,” says Greuel, CEO of Protein Industries Canada (PIC), an industry-led non-profit created to promote Canada as a global source of high- quality plant protein and plant-based co- products. “We see our role now to increase the overall competitiveness of the protein sector, and also to protect the intellectual property of what we are developing in these emerging markets to help position Canada as an even stronger player in this sector going forward.”

At the outset, Canada is a strong contender for leadership in the global plant protein production sector. As one of the five global jurisdictions that is a net exporter of food, and the only one that grows and exports pulses and canola on a large scale, Canada’s agriculture industry is already producing 12 million tonnes of plant protein from 60 million tonnes of crop grown every year.

“We produce a high-quality product on a large scale right now,” says Greuel. “We produce it using a low environmental footprint with our minimal tillage practices and low impact farming. We also have a solid transportation infrastructure. Our fundamentals are there — more so than any other area in the world at this point in time.”

BUILDING A BETTER PEA

Canada is a major global supplier of pulse crops including peas, lentils, beans, chickpeas and faba beans. Production has increased dramatically over the past decade, hitting a record eight million acres in 2018. On average, 3.5 million acres are seeded to pulse crops each year, making it Canada’s fifth largest crop overall, and it is exported to 130 markets around the world.


Bill Greuel

Greuel says there are three main drivers for the rise in demand for plant protein. “First has been the population growth primarily in Asia,” he says. “More than 940 million people are expected to enter the middle class in the coming years a they spend more on food. Often their diets include plant protein.”

Second, he points to changing food trends in North America. With an aging, more environmentally conscious population, consumers are making the shift to more convenience foods that often include an increased proportion of plant- based protein.

The final driver has been the shift in the type of feed for livestock and companion animals. Pet owners and ranchers have been sourcing feed alternatives that are higher in protein, higher in fibre and have a lower glycemic index. That feed often includes plant protein.

Peas are protein rich, plant-based and gluten free, and align well with current food trends. As demand has shifted to higher protein markets, breeding efforts have also changed to meet that demand, with a greater emphasis on the development of high-quality, high-protein pea breeds that do not sacrifice yield, stand or maturity.

Government, industry and universities have already made inroads into new breeds of protein-rich pea varieties. As well, pea breeding uses conventional methods rather than genetically modified development, which means access to some global markets that limit genetically modified products, like canola. Some protein enrichment is also being done at the processing rather than the breeding level.

GROWING TO MEET DEMAND

Greuel doesn’t expect Canada to have any issues meeting global demand, as the country already produces a significant amount of pulse crops. “I think the pulse industry will respond to the call for the increase in tonnage,” he says. “We have seen how well Canada responded when canola demand increased — we started to invest in better varieties, better agronomics and our production took off. I can’t see why we wouldn’t do the same with pulses. We can do a lot with our existing supply.”

PIC is one of five innovation supercluster initiatives that the Government of Canada developed to create jobs and to foster growth across five diverse industry sectors. Over the next four years the government will invest $54 million in plant protein research and development to help transform the nation’s protein business right across the value chain.

PIC’s first investment is into Botaneco, a Calgary-based oilseed ingredient manufacturer that has developed a new crushing method that is different from the current large-scale crushing process. “This process results in a crush that is lower in fibre and higher in protein,” says Greuel. “This makes it easier to digest by swine and even humans, creating a higher value end product. As half of what we export is raw seed, this doesn’t take away from the existing crushing markets. Rather, it opens up new opportunities for Canadian seed.”

On the pulse side, there have been several other recent announcements in Canadian processing infrastructure. France’s Roquette and Canada’s Verdient Foods are building pea processing plants in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Vancouver’s Burcon NutraScience, in partnership with a Manitoba company, Merit Functional Foods, is planning to open a 20,000-ton processing facility in Winnipeg in 2020, which will produce both pea and canola protein.

PIC is currently going through its second round of submissions for investment opportunities, and Greuel says he is seeing ideas from all along the value chain. “At this point we are collecting all the data we can — from the agriculture community, from researchers, from downstream — with the aim of making growing and processing plant protein an efficient and money making process for the Canadian industry.”FF