Plant protein supercluster will be game changer for ag

The success of the Protein Industries Canada supercluster in drawing federal funding should not be underestimated. It has the potential to be a game-changer for agriculture in Western Canada.

And it is the first tangible initiative in the federal government’s goal to increase Canada’s agriculture and agribusiness exports by more than 34 percent to $75 billion by 2025. That kind of increase would translate into thousands of jobs in Canada and a lot more opportunity for the agriculture industry.

It would have been preferable to also see the other agricultural supercluster under consideration included in federal funding. The Alberta-based Smart-Agrifood Supercluster — which includes Nutrien, Olds College and satellite firm MDA Corp. — focuses on co-ordination to grow and process food in an environmentally suitable manner. It’s a worthy effort that deserves support.

Still, with only five out of 50 superclusters approved to receive almost $1 billion in federal funding, it’s a big win for the PIC supercluster, which includes more than 120 private-sector companies, academic institutions and other agencies in Western Canada.

The idea is to improve co-operation among those companies and agencies in a way that will develop the industry, generating new technologies and better practices.

The PIC supercluster will have offices in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and it’s likely that any expected growth will be generated across the Prairies.

PIC aims to find ways to extract protein from plants and then market the resulting products globally. It will focus on crop genetics, precision agriculture, new technologies and marketing and exporting.

Farmers can hope to see better yields and more markets for their crops after the fractionation of plant proteins create high-protein products that become more widely available.

This matches well with the changing nature of food demand and Canada’s export goals. Younger generations, which are becoming the dominant consumers of food, are moving toward plant proteins, and developing countries are consuming more meat, which will require more high-protein meal.

Opportunities exist across the industry: oilseeds, cereals and pulses — even hemp and flax. Recent success in fractionating pulses and creating new ingredients has already generated investment and jobs in such companies as Saskatoon-based POS Biosciences, which has clients around the world.

And as PIC supercluster officials pointed out, canola — a huge crop in Western Canada — has good potential for protein development if methods can be developed to extract it from seeds.

PIC officials expect technological advances, new businesses, new products and growth of existing business to generate $700 million in new commercial activity and 4,700 jobs. Many of those jobs will be in rural areas as new fractionation plants are built near crop centres.

And industry is leading the way. Access to government funds may be in the range of $150 million, but already some $400 million of private funding has been committed in cash and venture capital.

All this sounds ambitious, but it is justifiable to be optimistic about the potential of the PIC supercluster. Plant-based protein is a $13 billion market — which is bound to grow — and Canada has only a small share of it at the moment.

A co-operative effort between industry, academia and government has great potential to grab a bigger part of that market, and Canada has the economic and political climate to make that happen.

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