Protein supercluster chief nurtures lofty dream for peas

Protein Industries Canada CEO believes the country can build enough fractionation plants to process all its peas at home

Bill Greuel has an “aspirational goal” for the prairie pea processing sector that he believes is feasible.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t process every last pea that we produce in Western Canada here at home,” said the chief executive officer of Protein Industries Canada (PIC).

Farmers harvested an estimated 4.36 million tonnes of peas this fall. Agriculture Canada expects 603,000 tonnes of that will be consumed domestically, mostly in feed rations.

Greuel is convinced that domestic consumption number is going to grow exponentially.

“We can build out a lot more capacity, there’s no question,” he said.

He acknowledged that it is expensive to build fractionation plants but believes it is feasible for Western Canada to eventually have enough processing capacity to consume the entire pea harvest.

“Why not? Somebody is going to do it,” said Greuel.

Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, said the industry has a long way to go to achieve Greuel’s dream.

But he does think the pea sector is capable of emulating what happened in canola, where half of the crop is now being processed domestically. It just may take another 10 years or so.

In the short-term, the pulse sector has set an objective to find new markets for 25 percent of Canada’s pea crop by 2025. That’s a new home for 1.1 million tonnes of peas.

“I’m confident we can get there,” said Potts.

Global demand for plant-based protein is exploding as consumers seek alternatives to meat and dairy products.

Recent studies by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Barclays suggest plant proteins could take about 10 percent of the meat market by 2035, amounting to $100 billion in global sales.

PIC has commissioned a study by Ernst and Young that will not only estimate market demand for plant-based proteins by 2035 but segment it by feedstock ingredient and by end-use. The report is expected to be released in early 2021.

In the meantime, pea fractionation plants are already cropping up across the Prairies.

Verdient Foods opened a large-scale operation in Vanscoy, Sask., in 2017. It is capable of processing 160,000 tonnes of peas at full capacity.

Parrheim Foods has a fractionation plant in Saskatoon and Nutri-Pea has one in Portage la Prairie.

Agrocorp opened Phase 1 of its pea protein plant in Cut Knife, Sask., in 2019. The plant can process up to 50,000 tonnes of pulses per year. The company said it planned to double the capacity of the facility in 2020.

There are also a couple of big new projects under construction.

French firm Roquette is on track to open its $400 million pea protein plant in Portage la Prairie, Man., by the end of 2020. The facility will be capable of processing 125,000 tonnes of peas annually.

Merit Functional Foods is constructing a pea and canola protein plant in Winnipeg that is also on track to be fully operational by December. It will consume 20,000 tonnes of peas annually.

When all of the above-mentioned facilities are up and running, they will have a combined annual capacity of more than 400,000 tonnes, which is a far cry from Greuel’s “aspirational goal” of 4.4 million tonnes.

Potts is not aware of any other plants in the works but he is sure other companies are considering investing in the sector.

Greuel said there is a mounting urgency to build more plants because if the projects don’t happen in Western Canada, they will happen somewhere else around the world to satisfy the rapidly growing appetite for plant protein.

“The race is on to build that capacity here in Western Canada because once it’s built, it’s built,” he said.

Greuel said the notion that processing needs to occur close to where the end-product is consumed rather than where the feedstock is produced applies more to finished goods.

For instance, it is impractical to ship canned chickpeas or pasta out of Saskatchewan because that involves shipping a lot of water or air long distances.

That is not the case for a dense, high-value product like pulse flour.

Greuel said there is a lot that the provincial and federal governments can do to lure pulse fractionation projects to Western Canada.

They need to create a competitive tax environment, provide suitable access to utilities and devise workable regulations.

Governments should also foster investment in science and innovation and create a supportive community for large-scale processing ventures, he said.

Potts said PIC is helping meet that last objective, providing a good “ecosystem” for the pulse processing sector by investing in facilities as well as research and development.

He said PIC shouldn’t be judged on how much capacity has been built to date but rather how things look in 10 years.

“I urge everyone to take the longer-term view in terms of measuring whether or not that supercluster initiative was successful,” said Potts.

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