Plant-based ingredients on the eve of a breakthrough

Plant protein products could be on the cusp of major success as new entries into the marketplace receive widespread public acceptance

SASKATOON — It takes a lot of commitment to spend decades working on research that might never lead to much.

It also takes a lot of commitment to spend farmers’ money for decades knowing that it might not lead to real gains.

Dedicated scientists and researchers did the former. And far-sighted farmers did the latter, according to senior University of Saskatchewan agriculture researcher Bob Tyler.

“They have had amazing vision and patience,” Tyler said about Saskatchewan’s pulse growers.

“Producers have been amazingly patient in understanding and not saying, ‘if we don’t see a direct line to profitability we want out.’ ”

Not all farm groups have been similarly committed to fundamental research that might have to wait for decades before showing a return, but with pulse growers that patience is now paying off, with huge consumer acceptance of plant protein meat substitutes.

None of that would be possible without half a century of research and development by universities, provincial and federal agriculture departments, and private sector visionaries.

Much of that has been funded by farmers, who have overlooked many tough times because of their faith in the inherent worth of their crops.

“There was this rich base to build from,” said Tyler.

“It was ready to launch. The base was already there.”

Today’s pulse protein overnight success story began at least back in the 1960s, with researchers at universities and the federal National Research Council beginning to explore the potential of crops like peas and fababeans.

Research continued in crop development, processing and food production, and although there were many small successes, the mass market did not embrace plant protein ingredients or replacements for meat on any major scale.

Still, the money from governments and farmers kept flowing. Entrepreneurs moved into and out of the space, but about 10 years ago developments began to fill out more than they had in the past.

Then the Beyond Meat burger frenzy occurred, the food and restaurant industry raced to get in on the consumer embrace of plant-based meat substitutes and venture capital and entrepreneurial enthusiasm has poured into the space.

To Tyler, it’s that sudden appearance of widespread public hunger for plant proteins that suggests that farmers might finally see permanent increases in plant protein demand.

“We were making texturized pea protein and fababean protein and snack foods and all sorts of things 10, 20, 25 years ago but you just couldn’t generate interest in the marketplace,” said Tyler.

“It’s going to be interesting. We’ve got small entrepreneurs and major, major companies involved now.”

Hopefully, the benefits will show up at the farmgate. That will reward the decades of commitment and perseverance to funding.

“We have lagged in providing access to good markets, in terms of returns to producers, for pulse growers,” said U of S engineering professor Venkatesh Meda, who specializes in ingredient production.

“That was missing, and that’s still missing.”

However, with all the newfound interest in plant proteins, researchers like Meda and Tyler believe the returns could soon be coming.

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