Use export problem to boost domestic pulse consumption

Never let a crisis go to waste.

These words, or something close to them, have been attributed to many, from Machiavelli to Winston Churchill to John F. Kennedy.

The idea is that a crisis creates new opportunities that can make the future better.

A fire may destroy a manufacturing plant, but when rebuilding you can improve the design and install the latest equipment, and thereby reduce costs, as well as generate new abilities and products that can expand markets and profits.

Do you think a crisis in pulse exports could be the spark to get Canadians eating more lentils and peas? What would be the effect of 36 million of your fellow countrymen chowing down on lentil soup?

I’m thinking about this as Canada’s pulse exports are at a near standstill. India, our largest customer, has enjoyed a couple of massive harvests and has more than enough product to meet its needs. To try to ensure that imported product does not undercut its own farmers, the Indian government imposed duties available to it under world trading rules.

Farmers in Canada, Australia and other countries that export pulses to India are not happy about the duties, but I expect Indian politicians are more interested in being seen to support their own struggling farmers than as supporters of the ideal of free trade.

It could be some long time before India is again buying pulses at the rate that it did in recent years.

I’ve written before that this crisis is happening at the same time that food processors in the developed world are showing increased interest in including pulse protein in a range of foods.

Pulse milling plants are being built in Western Canada to meet the need, and this new source of domestic demand will be most welcome.

Furthermore, the federal government has provided $150 million in “supercluster” funding over 10 years to the pulse sector.

The federal funding is designed to attract hundreds of millions more in spending by the industry and its supporters to develop markets, expand processing and improve seed varieties.

In the coming years this will likely help to greatly expand the demand for pulses, moving them from the limitations of being only a “whole food” to be a plant protein ingredient in everything from meat substitutes to snack foods.

But in the meantime, could we expand domestic consumption in other ways?

Back when BSE closed markets and devastated the beef industry, Canadians stepped up to help.

Rather than turning away from domestic beef, Canada was the first country to support its producers and increase consumption by making beef eating a matter of patriotic pride.

Canadians couldn’t eat their way out of the BSE crisis, but the support from the Canadian public was treasured by the beef industry.

More recently, situations involving Canadian tomatoes in ketchup and beef in certain restaurant chains have also captured the public interest and put Canadian food in the spotlight.

So why couldn’t there be a movement to put pulse dishes on the menus of major restaurant chains? They could ride a wave of patriotic support rippling across a large bowl of hearty lentil soup.

Canada is a dominant producer of pulses and is the world’s largest exporter of the food. Pulses should be as much a point of national pride as poutine, maple syrup or beer.

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