Pea boom pressures prairie sector

Will Western Canada and its farmers be able to surf atop the tsunami of demand for plant-based proteins washing over grocery stores and restaurants?

With a second pulse protein plant being built in Manitoba and Western Canada having a long-established track record as being a leading world producer and exporter of non-meat proteins, the region seems ideally situated to reap the rewards of the plant-based craze.

But some worry that not all the pieces and processes are in place.

“Can we pull the prairie provinces together?” said Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation.

“That’s the biggest issue.”

Dade worries that interprovincial trade barriers and parochial thinking among governments and funding organizations will complicate, slow and undermine investment in the booming sector just when Western Canada needs everybody in farming, food and industry to work together.

Food industry expert Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University said farming and agriculture will need to be flexible and aggressive when addressing the sudden appearance of so much demand for plant-based proteins.

“It’s happening so fast, everywhere in the western world,” said Charlebois about the proliferation of plant-based meat substitutes on grocery store shelves and at fast food restaurants.

“Agriculture doesn’t tend to adapt that quickly…. It’s adaptability and production that are of concern.”

From one major fast-food chain and one main plant-based meat substitute a couple of years ago, the plant-based protein market has radically expanded to most major fast food chains and virtually every major grocery store chain.

“At retail they’re trying to change things,” said Charlebois.

“It’s been messy for a while. You can tell grocers don’t know how to handle this.”

Portage la Prairie is home to a major new pea protein plant being built by French firm Roquette. The Winnipeg area will be home for the new plant being built by canola and pea protein product company Burcon and some of the backers of Hemp Oil Canada, who created one of the hemp industry’s biggest success stories.

These two plants will produce protein ingredients for products like meat substitutes, as well as other foods and feeds. Obtaining peas and other pulses from Western Canada isn’t generally seen as the biggest challenge because domestic use can supplant some exports.

But supplying the food industry with enough extracted plant protein ingredients is probably a bigger concern. With so many companies offering and wanting to offer plant protein products, it’s possible that demand will outstrip supply of the ingredients, or that bulk pulse crops will be shipped elsewhere for protein extraction.

That’s why Dade wants to see Western Canada’s provincial governments and organizations work across provincial borders and with Protein Industries Canada to boost ingredient production capacity, since producing ingredients and protein components is the natural fit.

“The niche to us in the West is really with the ingredients,” said Dade.

Manufacturing non-meat burgers, sausage or other finished food products isn’t Western Canada’s competitive edge because packaged products like that are bulky and often require complicated labelling, so making them near or inside their end markets makes most sense.

“Our niche on the Prairies is the intermediate products,” said Dade, referring to the protein components that will be extracted by plants like Roquette’s and Burcon’s.

Protein ingredients can also be extracted and used in products like aquafeeds, which are likely to become much more important in coming years as fish farming grows into being a bigger part of the protein market.

Western Canada can produce large amounts of animal and plant proteins, so if the region is aggressive and flexible enough, it and its farmers should benefit from tapping into multiple future markets.

“We don’t care if they want to eat meat…. We want to be there to hand them whatever kind of protein they want,” said Dade.

Charlebois said the incredible growth of the plant protein market makes predicting its eventual nature dodgy right now, but being able to provide the protein is unarguably vital.

“I think Canadian agriculture is poised to do very well,” said Charlebois.

“You really need to grow (ingredient processing capacity). I don’t think agriculture has been hit with (the future demand for plant protein) yet, but it’s coming.”

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