Plant-based protein craze is not an overnight sensation

Yup, this plant protein explosion shows how a new market can come out of nowhere and become an overnight success.

That’s what tens of millions of consumers, food processors and providers everywhere are probably thinking right now as everybody rushes to fill their shelves, menus and fridges with plant protein sources.

It’s the biggest thing in the food market right now.

But you get more of a wry smile and chuckle when you talk to the scientists, crop developers and farmers who have been working away diligently for decades on creating demand for plant protein.

“This has been fermenting for a long time,” Bob Tyler, a University of Saskatchewan agriculture professor specializing in food products, told me as we chatted in his office recently.

“There (is) this rich base to build from.”

Since at least the 1960s, scientists have been trying to break out the components of crops to create new protein products. Governments and, increasingly in the past 20 years, farmers, have been funding efforts to crack the code on how to get the proteins and other components out of crops and offer consumers and processors something beyond raw grains and oilseeds.

That should bring an overall higher value for the crops, the thinking has been, and getting more value per bushel is what it’s all about.

It has been a slow and grinding process. Millions of dollars of public and farmer money have been poured into efforts to get that extra value out of the prairie bushel. A couple of generations of researchers, developers and entrepreneurs have seen opportunities on the horizon and have striven hard to reach them, only to see most of them recede.

Until now, apparently. There is enormous excitement about plant proteins becoming a bigger part of the world’s diets. Money and major companies are pouring into the area.

It no longer seems pie-in-the-sky.

“It’s real,” hemp industry pioneer Shaun Crew said to me during last week’s Manitoba Protein Summit in Winnipeg.

I remember covering him and the hemp industry in the early 2000s, when it was still in its formative stages, and its conferences would often be held in second rate airport hotels. It seemed like perhaps just another pipe dream, another iteration of the “alternative agriculture” trend that generally failed in the 1990s.

But it had a lot of good science behind it, experienced farmers to grow it, and serious entrepreneurs and capitalists to try to make it work. And it did. Hemp products are everywhere. Heck, I can buy a few in my local Costco.

Now a flood of other plant protein, oil and energy products is hitting the market and it has found a mass consumer market thirsty for “healthy” plant-based products.

“We always knew it could be there,” said Manitoba Canola Growers president Charles Fossay as we chatted during the Protein Summit’s lunch break.

So many farmers have contributed so much money, and so many researchers have spent so much of their careers hoping to break open the protein potential of plants, that it’s great to see the public finally catching on.

It’s the kind of overnight success farmers and scientists deserve because if it had taken much longer they’d all be retired or dead before it finally happened.

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