Ottawa funds plant protein processing facility in Winnipeg

Boosting the value of western Canadian canola and peas is a foundation of new government funding for a plant protein company planned for Winnipeg.

While the Merit Functional Foods plant and its processing is expected to add about 200 jobs to the local economy, the underlying focus is on creating more value for the crops that Canada grows.

“We will be increasing western Canadian farmgate revenues,” said Ryan Bracken, co-chief executive officer of Merit Functional Foods, during the announcement of a $19.1 million project to create new canola and pea protein products at the under-construction Merit plant in the city.

Jim Carr, the prime minister’s special representative for the Prairies, said increasing crop values is an important part of investing in innovative food processing.

“This project will provide significant value to raw materials that are otherwise exported at lower costs to international markets,” said Carr, who was formerly international trade minister.

“Prairie Canada is growing and developing and adding value to food and to protein and sending it around the world, where demand will only grow.”

The specific project announced Jan. 10 will see Protein Industries Canada contribute $9.5 million toward the protein project, money that will be matched by a combination of Merit, Pitura Seeds of Domain, Man., and Winning Combination of Winnipeg.

It will use patented technology developed by Burcon Nutrascience, a pioneering crop fractionation company, and work with the Manitoba Food Development Centre. The goal is to produce protein isolates with “more than 90 percent purity and high solubility in food and beverages.”

That should counter some of the problems plant proteins have traditionally faced, according to Bracken. That includes the perception of poor taste, low solubility, and mixed quality.

Low solubility has led to some plant protein isolates seeming “gritty” when they appear in food products.

Bracken said Merit plans to produce canola protein isolates with non-genetically modified canola, so it knows it will need to entice farmers to grow non-GM canola, which is a tiny part of the prairie acreage.

“We need a better understanding of where our supply chain is coming from, and understand exactly how that ties back to farmers’ yields and economics,” said Bracken in an interview.

“What does that mean to growers across Western Canada? How do we tie back our needs … to growers?”

Bracken spent years in the hemp-processing industry, working closely with growers of an overall acreage of 90,000 to 100,000 acres, and he expects to see Merit develop similarly close relationships with growers willing to grow specialized canola.

Initially, the plant will use the production of about 20,000 acres, but in three to five years, total consumption should grow to about 100,000 tonnes.

Protein Industries Canada’s first funded project was also a canola protein project, but one using different technology and planning to serve different markets.

This is PIC’s second project.

“The innovation supercluster initiative was designed to support companies just like Merit and Pitura Seeds and the Winning Combination,” said Bill Greuel, chief executive officer of Protein Industries Canada.

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