Plant-based protein craze makes strong case for R & D

Costco is a great window into consumer trends. It’s where food trends that I read and write about become real to me, in a big way, as I wander the aisles.

If it’s being carried at Costco, that means not only is a product being manufactured in industrial quantities, but Costco has assessed consumer demand being strong enough to see pallet after pallet emptied by the samples-drunk crowds of shoppers.

So, I was happy to find lentil-based spaghetti along an aisle on Sunday. I’m always happy when I find hemp products. There are always many oat products.

These are all prairie crops, which receive little attention elsewhere.

Sure, the Prairies produce much more of the bigger commodities that line the Costco shelves, like canola, beef, chicken, cheese and the hundreds of products made with wheat, but it’s those little crops where Western Canada has an edge in the market.

There’s always a danger that these little crops will disappear as farmers stream into bigger, easier-to-market commodities, and farmers committed to those traditional crops anxiously watch prairie acreage and research funding trends.

It’s hard for the little crops to get support. How do you justify handing research and development money over to something like flax or oats when farmers are already voting with their acres against those crops?

But it’s good for farmers these haven’t disappeared, and that R and D limps along. You never know where demand will suddenly grow, or where you can actually create demand by developing a new product or a new use.

That’s what’s happening with plant protein right now. The explosion of interest from burger chains, grocery stores and consumers for plant-based hamburgers and other meat substitutes has taken everybody by surprise. The main beneficiaries right now are the pulse crops, with peas becoming a major component of the bogus-burgers.

Extraction plants are being built in many areas of the world, including two facilities in southern Manitoba. Hopefully those sorts of developments continue and Western Canada gets more than its share, since it’s where some of the world’s most important pulse crops grow.

But this sudden expansion of demand for a product nobody much cared about five years ago is a great signal — and a warning — for the other small crops. The plant-based protein phenomenon relies upon a lot of science in developing the ingredients and in manufacturing consumer-friendly products. If that science wasn’t done, or isn’t done in the future, creating this sort of market phenomenon wouldn’t be possible.

The small crops, regardless of their market demand today, need to be ready to leap on the waves of future demand. What will that demand come from? That’s impossible to say. Few saw the bogus-burger wave coming.

But both the opportunity and challenge are enormous. Demand for our oft-ignored crops can suddenly take off when a new use of an old product takes off.

Then the problem isn’t convincing the market that there’s a use for it. It’s producing enough of the right ingredient to capture that demand before it fades or finds supplies elsewhere.

It’d be a nice problem for any of our other small crops to face, but it’s only through continual research and development that they’ll get that chance to be renewed. Let’s hope farmers, universities, agriculture companies and governments support them.

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