Pulse sector mood mixes hope with gloom

Access to global markets remains restricted for many crops, but the development of a larger domestic market looms

MONTREAL — At the end of the storm there’s a golden sky, a reward, say many in the pulse and special crops industries, but it is taking longer to reach than they hoped.

“We’re so close to having a domestic production side. That’s going to help us all,” said St. Paul, Alta., farmer Don Shepert, during the Pulse and Special Crops Convention held Aug. 21-22.

“It’ll help us as farmers, to find another channel to (clear) our products. We’re close, and we’re seeing it, but the disappointing thing … is that we’re not seeing the opportunities internationally and we live in fear of some of the trade issues.”

Indeed, most at the annual gathering of the pulse and special crops trade reflected that same mixed mood of optimism and pessimism. International markets are fraught with blockages and anxiety, but a new industry is expanding at home in North America. How those two phenomena interact will dictate how farmers and the pulse trade do in the next couple of years.

India may have slammed the door shut to most Canadian pulses, but new plant protein extraction facilities are being built in the heart of the Prairies and consumer demand is exploding.

“That has shared billing with all our market access issues,” said Allison Ammeter, a Sylvan Lake, Alta., farmer and chair of Pulse Canada.

“The markets around the world are all in a state of flux and indecision…. It’s been interesting watching as they talk about the opportunities around the world and the challenges around the world, and then also hear talk about the opportunities and challenges at home with new uses.”

India’s blocking of most Canadian and other foreign pulse crops is no longer new, and a feeling of resignation tinged many discussions about the Indian situation during the convention.

And worry that China, which still buys Canadian peas and other pulses despite the China-Canada diplomatic dispute, could add pulses to its list of boycotted Canadian commodities crept into discussions about otherwise healthy Chinese demand.

However, a strong presence at the convention by Indian government officials and Indian industry people raised hopes that the Indian blockage is not a permanent situation, and might be beginning to weaken.

“It feels promising,” said Cindy Brown, the American president of the Global Pulse Confederation.

“The door has been opened.”

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, who spoke to the convention, reflected that feeling in an interview.

“They are asking us questions,” said Bibeau about her department’s interactions with the Indian government.

“This is a good sign.”

China has been a godsend for Canada’s pulse growers and industry, making up some of the lost Indian business, but everybody in the business is aware of China’s trade actions against Canada. The complete blocking of Canadian canola and the current ban on Canadian pork and beef are worrisome signs of what could happen to Canadian pea exports to China if the dispute worsens.

But as pulse players fretted over the trade situation, they also warmed to the ever-growing reality that plant-based proteins are only beginning to move into grocery stores, restaurants and homes of North America, and are part of a global surge in demand for protein products, which pulse crops are best positioned to supply.

“It’s not a fad,” said Samara Foisy, the director of food development for Loblaws, Canada’s biggest grocery store company.

She and Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois agreed that plant protein demand appears to be a long-term development and something that is likely to permanently add a new element to protein markets and food production everywhere.

“We’re just at the starting point here,” said Charlebois.

However, there is a gap between the rise in plant protein demand and the current slackness in export bulk markets, and farmers and industry leaders are hoping it’s just a short hop to clear, not a chasm.

“In the short-term we do have challenges,” said Gordon Bacon, president of the Canadian Special Crops Association.

“We anxiously await the longer term to arrive and start having an impact. (New plant protein demand) doesn’t yet take up the loss that India delivered to us.”

Near the end of the convention, southern Alberta farmer Greg Stamp was sounding optimistic.

“They’ll be back,” said Stamp about India.

The present trade blockage is pushing Canada’s industry to embrace the plant protein opportunity, which is “really good for our industry.”

How long it takes for the trade storm to abate and for the sweet silver song of a lark to be heard isn’t yet known. But the pulse industry seems confident that whatever the short-term problems, the future is bright.

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