Plant protein needs products beyond bogus-burgers

Will the plant protein craze propel farmers into a better-balanced production system and safer markets?

There are lots of reason to hope for that as many food industry experts say they see the present surge of interest in non-meat protein as a developing trend rather than a short-term food fad.

If demand for pulse and other crop protein sources continues to grow and makes a significant impact on demand, that should help farmers grow more acres of crops other than wheat and canola, and that’s got to be a good thing. Farmers feel shackled to wheat as a rotation crop, and feel vulnerable to the downsides facing canola’s future, such as clubroot and overreliance on the Chinese market.

It’d be great to see the protein crops become far more common outside today’s core production area.

But farmers have to see that demand in real terms, as in ease-of-movement and better prices. If non-meat proteins consume only marginal amounts of the vast quantities of crops that farmers produce, it’s not going change much at the on-farm level. Farmers will have to start thinking about those “special” crops as being less special, and as something that becomes an automatic part of their rotations, like cereals or canola.

There was a lot of talk about non-meat burgers (I uncharitably call them bogus-burgers) at the Pulse and Special Crops Convention in Montreal. They’re certainly in your face whenever you go to the grocery store or Tim Hortons, and when you drive (scowling, perhaps) by A & W.

But will bogus-burgers ever supply enough demand for pea and other plant protein to assure farmers they will be able to move whatever they grow, and generally for a good enough price?

I don’t know enough of burger patty economics to assess that, but I took heart from the words of analyst Chuck Penner of LeftField Commodity Research, who spoke at the Montreal convention.

“We’ve had so much focus on these patties,” he said, pointing out that burgers are only one possible use for plant protein.

Plant protein doesn’t just have to be seen as a meat substitute, but as an ingredient that supplies its own nutritional value. If more and more food products begin including plant proteins, there’s much more potential demand.

“I think that’s where the larger volume opportunities are,” said Penner.

It’d certainly be better for plant protein demand if it wasn’t just a substitute for another protein. That would condemn it to being a derivative product. It would also leave it vulnerable to the risks of becoming a fad.

What if the experts are wrong and bogus-burgers are just a fad? If that’s all plant protein is supplying beyond traditional markets, that’d be devastating.

But if plant proteins begin appearing in more and more food products on their own merits, as core components of health-focused foods, that demand is harder to lose. People are less likely to give up on eating “healthy” food than they are to get sick of bogus-burgers.

I’d guess that bogus-burgers have a limited potential, with your average future barbecue artist throwing a bunch of beef burgers onto the grill but adding a couple of non-meat burgers for those pain-in-the-butt vegans who might show up.

Health-focused foods? I can’t see that demand cooling. That’s now a multi-decade trend that might just be in its early stages. Pulse and other plant proteins are already in numerous foods in the grocery stores, but not in the way farmers will need in order to see real volumes spike, prices rise and offshore bulk markets become less important.

We’re at early stages here, but the signs look good. Farmers aren’t yet seeing much of the direct benefit of the plant protein boom.

That’s the other shoe we need to hear drop. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long.

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