A field of yellow flowers under a stormy sky.

Alberta could be plant-based powerhouse; funding available for companies to grow sector

Food and Agriculture
Published On
June 4, 2019

Alberta could become a global leader in the growing plant-based food sector, but must first transition from being an exporter of raw commodities into a value-added producer.

Storm clouds gather over a field of canola near Queenstown, Alta., on July 1, 2018. MIKE DREW/POSTMEDIA

That was one of the messages Tuesday as industry leaders gathered in Calgary for a three-day international conference on the future of food, and the world of plant-based foods and plant protein ingredients. Organized by the Dutch networking company Bridge2Food, the summit — held in Canada for the first time in its 13-year history — focuses on consumer trends and opportunities for businesses as the demand for plant-based products increases around the world.

Western Canada has 28 million acres of arable land and harvested 60 million metric tonnes of crops in 2018, conference attendees heard. We are already a global leader in high-protein pulse crops such as peas, lentils and chickpeas, harvesting 6.5 million metric tonnes annually.

However, Bill Greuel, CEO of Protein Industries Canada, said Canada must do more to maximize its “natural advantages.”

“What we see as the future is very little of our commodities going out of Western Canada as raw seed,” Greuel said in an interview. “Our vision would be the vast majority of crops being processed into higher value ingredients here in Western Canada and, as a first step, those ingredients being shipped out. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t think about 20 years from now, finished food products being produced here.”

Protein Industries Canada (PIC) — a group of businesses, post-secondary institutions and non-profits working together to make Canada a world leader in the plant protein market — was awarded $153 million from the federal government last November through its Innovation Superclusters Initiative. Greuel said his organization is now looking to leverage that funding by partnering with the private sector, and issued its first call for proposals in April with $40 million in available funding for projects aimed at growing the sector. PIC will match up to 50 per cent of industry investments on all eligible expenses for successful projects.

“We’ve defined some outcomes we’re looking for, but we don’t view it as our job to tell industry how to get there,” Greuel said. “Industry knows how to get there . . . we’re really looking for the private sector to come to us and give us a sense of where the investments should be made.”

In addition to value-added processing, Greuel said Western Canada needs to invest in crop research and development. It is possible, for example, to use plant breeding and genetics to increase the protein content in canola, one of Canada’s signature crops. There are also exciting opportunities to ramp up Canadian production and processing of other lesser-known but high-protein crops such as hemp, camelina and soybeans.

Hemp plants in Vegreville on Aug. 9, 2017. Photo by David Bloom DAVID BLOOM / POSTMEDIA

One company that will be applying under the program is Calgary-based Botaneco, which is hoping to access funding to help commercialize the novel oilseeds processing technique it has spent the past five years developing. Botaneco believes its process — which extracts the naturally occurring oil and protein from seeds such as canola, hemp, sunflower and safflower — has a range of possibilities for both the food and personal-care markets.

“We have so many endowments in these three Prairie provinces that we haven’t been utilizing,” said Botaneco CEO James Szarko. “We’ve typically built bigger grain elevators, bigger transportation systems, but a lot of it has been based on commodities. The next step here is to really build the value-added part.”

The global demand for plant-based food sources has been increasing for a variety of reasons. A growing middle class in highly populated parts of the world such as Asia means more mouths to feed. People with higher disposable incomes demand higher-quality sources of food, including protein — yet concerns about environmental sustainability and human health are leading to declines in red meat consumption in North America and Western Europe. According to a study by the University of Dalhousie, 6.4 million Canadians are already following a diet that restricts meat at least partially. The new Canada Food Guide, released in January, urges Canadians to adopt more plant-based sources of protein while a report in the medical journal The Lancet said a global reduction in meat consumption will be necessary by 2050 for environmental and food security reasons.

Szarko said the consumer trends are real, and are driving a fundamental market shift that the Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry must be prepared for.

“This could be a true economic driver of growth across the country,” he said. “It’s time for Canada now.”