Pulse growers urged to focus on ‘champions’

Red lentils, green lentils, yellow peas, green peas, desi chickpeas, kabuli chickpeas, fababeans, navy beans, pinto beans and great northern beans: that long list represents many but not all of the pulse crops grown in Western Canada.

Such diversity is a good thing because certain species are suited for specific climates, so pulses can be grown in the wetter climate of Manitoba’s Red River Valley and the dry conditions of western Saskatchewan.

However, a U.S. plant protein expert says the diversity is worrisome because there isn’t enough money to support 10 or 15 pulse crops in Canada.

“The resources (the pulse industry) has at its disposal, either from grower check-off programs or private industry investment, is a fraction of what the major oilseed crops have. Yet, the diversity of (pulse) crops is an order of magnitude higher,” said Phil Kerr, former senior director of research and development with DuPont, who now runs Serio Nutrition Solutions, a consultancy that focuses on how agriculture can satisfy consumer expectations.

Kerr spoke about the plant protein market at the 2017 Agricultural Bioscience International Conference, held Sept. 25-28 in Winnipeg.

In his talk, Kerr said the global market for protein, from plant and animal sources, could reach 100 to 140 million tonnes by 2050. In 2010, global demand for protein was about 75 million tonnes.

Prairie pulses could grab a share of the expanding market, but Canada may need to remove a few eggs from its pulse basket, Kerr said.

“That is a big opportunity. I would hate to see a country like Canada worry about the fine balance between six or eight different pulse crops, while somebody else is just going hell bent for leather (with one crop),” he said. “It doesn’t mean you throw away all these other crops. But you may have to make some hard choices and find those champions.”

Kerr said it comes down to research and development. It can cost millions, or likely tens of millions, to improve the agronomic and nutritional traits in a crop. But in Canada, the limited investment dollars for pulses are spread over many crops.

“At some point it becomes a critical mass (issue),” he said. “The genetic resources that you need to improve these crops, that’s a real issue.”

Peas and lentils dominate pulse acreage in Saskatchewan. Those two crops had about six million acres in 2017, much larger than 135,000 acres of chickpeas and 50,000 acres of fababeans.

Nonetheless, the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers want to provide as many options for growers as possible.

“Part of our strategic plan is to ensure there is at least one pulse crop (suitable) for every acre in the province,” said Carl Potts, Sask-atchewan Pulse Growers executive director.

Potts said research and development dollars are critical, but so is diversity.

“I do get the point … (that) if you’re trying to supply ingredients … having one product that works really well might make some sense,” he said.

“But if you look at it from a production perspective, diversity is really important. And that’s certainly what we’re hearing from growers and researchers.”

Chris Nowlan, canola products market manager for Dow Agrosciences and a speaker at the ABIC conference in Winnipeg, agreed crop diversity is critical but production efficiency is also important.

“How do we produce the massive amounts of protein that we’re going to require … in the next 40 years?”

Kerr said it’s difficult to deliberately choose a champion and focus efforts on a particular pulse crop, but other countries are doing it. Australia’s pulse sector, for example, is directing more of its resources towards lupins.

“Somebody is going to figure out how to make the equivalent of four of the world’s (total) pulse industry,” Kerr said.

“If somebody else makes (the) strategic decision and gets going, the risk that you run is that the ship has sailed and you’re not on it.”

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