Canada must act to cash in on plant protein trend

There’s a golden opportunity in front of Western Canada, but plant protein processing potential could pop up somewhere else if prairie people don’t grab it.

That was a message threaded through a number of presentations made by grain, food and logistics experts speaking at the Fields on Wheels conference Nov. 1.

“There is opportunity. We need to seize it, though,” said pulse markets analyst, Chuck Penner of LeftField Commodity Research.

The implications of the plant protein boom are appearing all across the Canadian agricultural scene as a processor- and consumer-led surge in demand for plant-based protein products has inflated hopes and expectations that farmers’ crops could be on the verge of unlocking major new value.

It’s not just talk, with entrepreneurs and major food companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars on plant protein plants in places like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and even mega-chains like McDonald’s considering adding items to their menus.

However, a number of speakers at Fields on Wheels pointed out that the present projects built or on-the-way will not be enough to supply a major increase in consumer and food company demand.

There’s an opportunity there, but if people on the Prairies don’t grab it, it will likely go elsewhere.

“I think the opportunity is pretty optimistic for Western Canada,” said Barry Prentice, a supply chain expert from the University of Manitoba, who headed the Transport Institute, which hosts Fields on Wheels.

The most important element to make the opportunity real is to get investment capital flowing in to make ideas and dreams become real, he said.

That need for investment capital, and the slow progress so far in pulling it in, is holding back the hemp industry from its potential, said Marc van Burck of Hemp Production Services.

There is an opportunity for a massive increase in hemp crop production and a huge opportunity for boosting value by breaking hemp into all its components, including oil, fibre, protein meal and the various specific bioactive compounds and substances like cannabinoids that have made the hemp industry the darling of the health food and nutraceutical industries.

However, van Burck said, much potential demand is going untapped because of a lack of processing plants. Without a more sophisticated cracking of the hemp seed into its unique components, the crop’s gains will be limited.

“For the last 15 years, despite our best efforts in Western Canada, hemp has been a niche industry and has not attracted the levels of capital that it is starting to attract today,” said van Burck.

With capital to fund processing and extraction plants, hemp has “the opportunity to be within the supply chain of a host of industries and companies.”

Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University food industry expert, said he also sees incredible potential, but capital scarcity as the situation confronting Western Canada’s hopes for substantial plant protein value potential.

“What I’m seeing in Manitoba is a miracle,” he said about the plants already announced or being built.

But they won’t be enough to make a huge impact on overall consumption and value-boosting of Western Canada’s huge pulse and other protein-rich crops.

Penner made the same observation. Production of protein isolates needs to increase to meet demand increases.

Some demand for Canadian protein is already there, but it’s overseas. Right now, China is importing millions of tonnes of protein-rich crops, processing them, then sending various products back to North America. That includes protein fractions that are being used in the food market.

“We do need to compete with China,” said Penner, who thinks Canadian protein extraction could displace some of the Chinese imports.

Not much has appeared in protein crop prices so far from all the new products and all the talk about plant protein potential, Penner said, but if demand continues to grow, it will.

Everybody talks about the non-meat burgers using pea protein, but it’s actually in a myriad of other products that plant proteins probably have the greatest opportunity for increasing consumption.

However, already processors from China, France and Australia are supplying some North American processors, so western Canadians shouldn’t assume the recent announcements of protein plants for the Prairies will naturally lead to more and more.

Others would appreciate the economic opportunity and are willing to capitalize upon it.

“The boat is leaving and we’re running to get on it,” said Penner.

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