Sustainability key to protein sector

Pulses are often lauded for their impact on the environment and human health, but industry officials say that needs to be proven and demonstrated to the market.  | File photo

Manitoba has a number of major protein processors, but staying near the front in the struggle to become a world-leading protein supplier requires a holistic strategy, the Manitoba Protein Summit heard.

Connecting Manitoba-made protein products to sustainability criteria will be key.

“Knowing how to sustainably produce food is extremely important in order for us to pave the way to be a global leader in protein,” said Dori Gingera-Beauchemin, Manitoba’s deputy minister of agriculture, as she opened the summit on Feb. 23.

The focus on sustainability measures and proving sustainability is a worldwide trend that puts pressure on food commodity providers to prove what they produce helps rather than hurts the planet and humanity.

Food can’t be seen as separate from its impact on everything else, said Alison Cairns of the United Nations.

It also isn’t good enough to just carry one good characteristic when producing and providing a food product.

“It’s not just about tackling one issue —environmental, biodiversity, or climate, or equity, or health — it’s about actively tackling all of those at the same time,” said Cairns, who is organizing a Food Systems Summit in September.

“It’s about actively tackling all of those at the same time.”

Manitoba is home to the newly built Roquette pea processing plant in Portage la Prairie, the Merit Functional Foods plant in Winnipeg and the Maple Leaf hog slaughter plant in Brandon. The first two are only now being commissioned and put into operation, serving the global appetite for plant proteins.

“The growing demand for protein puts Manitoba in a very strong position to not only process the raw commodities, but also to produce and incorporate manufactured ingredients in further value-added consumer products,” said Dickson Gould, president of The Progressive Group and chair of the Manitoba Protein Consortium.

However, to take advantage of that, Manitoba producers will have to develop their sustainability because that is key to the development of protein markets.

The consortium is working on a Sustainable Action Framework and wants to ensure Manitoba’s protein-producing efforts fit into the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Pulse and other protein crops are often lauded for their impact on the environment, farmers and human health, but that needs to be proven and demonstrated to the market.

Cairns said food products will be judged on their overall virtues, not whether they fulfil one criterion of sustainability. Producing regions, governments and industries need to avoid focusing on isolated attributes if they want their products seen as sustainable.

“No constituency, whether it’s a government, whether it’s a company, should try to cherry-pick what it’s trying to tackle,” said Cairns.

“The challenge is, and what brings in the complexity, is the need to tackle all those at the same time, and that requires a systems approach and multi-stakeholder and deeper, more fundamental collaboration than we see to this date.”

The Manitoba Protein Summit was established in 2019 to promote a key focus of the Manitoba government’s agricultural development strategy. The government has targeted protein production as an area in which Manitoba has natural advantages and could see growth. Hog and pork production is already a major protein-based industry, but beef production has greatly fallen with the loss of the packing industry and the shrinking of the cow herd, and the plant protein processing industry is only now coming to the fore.

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