Plant protein alliance demise mourned

The Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta says it was forced to close because of lost funding from the provincial government. The author argues the funding cut was short-sighted. | File photo

On April 20 the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta announced it would be closing its doors due to the termination of financial support by the government of Alberta.

This represents a perplexing and sad turn of events. PPAA’s work to promote the diversification of Alberta’s agri-food economy represents a subject that is commonly recognized by government officials to be a high priority.

In its capacity as a member-based industry association, PPAA has been productive in building a network of members and tirelessly promoting the economic benefits of value-added processing in the agri-food sector, with an emphasis on the growing importance of plant proteins in food.

PPAA supported its membership base, developed a quality newsletter and held numerous high-level seminars, webinars, workshops and networking events, often attended by national and international leaders.

This exceptional level of performance was achieved by a small, highly motivated management team working closely with a dedicated, professional volunteer board of directors coming from a wide range of prominent Alberta organizations. This productivity has been achieved with previous annual provincial support of $250,000, arguably a very good return on investment.

A government bureaucrat could very well ask why public dollars should be spent on supporting a member-based industry association. While this might appear to be logical question, it fails to recognize that a stable, operational framework is required to spearhead new initiatives, organize consortia, build relationships with external funding organizations and establish international partnerships, to name only a few critical activities.

The membership is simply unable to cover such expenses without prohibitive membership fees, which in turn would spell the failure of the organization. It is therefore logical and appropriate for government to establish not-for-profit entities operating at arm’s length to effectively address economic opportunities and promote the application of emerging technologies.

By comparison, Ag-West Bio Inc. (AWB), a Saskatchewan-based agri-food industry association, has been in business since 1989 and has been consistently funded through the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry (through its partnership with the federal government) at an annual level of at least five-fold higher than the provincial funding that PPAA has recently lost.

It should be recognized that the closure of PPAA is a loss not only for Alberta, but also for the prairie region and, indeed, for Canada. A group of Albertans, some of whom ended up as managers and directors of PPAA, had created the concept of an Alberta food cluster well before the establishment of PPAA. Under the leadership of Dennis McKnight, who became the founding chief executive officer of PPAA, viable international relationships were established with European countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark, both world leaders in value-added food processing and new product development.

The Alberta team reached out to Saskatchewan five years ago and successful meetings were held to develop areas of common interest with Ag-West Bio and its members. It should also be remembered that PPAA, along with other grassroots prairie organizations, was a founding member of the Protein Industries Canada Supercluster, now a recognized national and international leader in supporting industry-led plant-protein innovation projects.

Allison Ammeter, who had been serving as PPAA chair, has also served as a founding director on the supercluster board.

PPAA had continued to co-operate with Ag-West Bio and the Bioscience Association of Manitoba under the banner of P3C, the Prairie Plant Protein Coalition.

In considering the highly significant and valuable role that PPAA had been playing, it is hereby argued that the government of Alberta should reconsider its hasty defunding decision. Careful and thoughtful strategic analysis is required in place of what appears to have been a short-sighted tactical decision.

Wilf Keller is vice-president of outreach with the Agri-Food Innovation Council. His 45-year science career included seven years as president of Ag-West Bio.

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