By Robert Fernandez, Director of Economic Diversification, Parkland County

Western Canadian provinces are sitting on 1.7 million acres of agricultural land that is ideally suited for the agriculture of protein-based pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, peas, fava beans, soy, and canola. Thanks to technological advances in protein fractionation, the country is poised to become the key global supplier of plant-based protein used in the development of food products worldwide such as Beyond Burger or non-dairy milk products. With a present market capitalization of $8 billion, the exponential demand of plant-based protein products means that the sky is the limit when it comes to future sources of revenue for Canada, the Province of Alberta, and smaller communities such as Parkland County, located 20 km west of the City of Edmonton.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, Canada will continue to be the world leader in the pulse trade for years to come. The FAO is forecasting Canadian exports of 7 million tons by 2025, up from an average of 5.1 million tons in the 2013-15 period. No other country will compete to that level of sales. The next highest is Australia with a forecast 2.3 million tons, followed by Myanmar’s 1.7 million tons. Crop yields in Canada alone are 30% greater than other locations around the world thanks to its perfect weather conditions (warm days and colder nights), dry soil, and mostly irrigated lands (notably in Southern Alberta).

Plant-based ingredients present a once in a generation opportunity for farmers in Alberta. Currently, Canadian exported pulses are being consumed primarily in their native form; however, a major shift is occurring across global diets that’s moving away from animal-based proteins to plant-based proteins. This switch bodes well for our agribusiness sector and makes the prairie provinces of Canada, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan ideal locations for protein fractionation.

Processors and investors believe that growing demand across North America and Europe for products that incorporate plant-based protein as ingredients, such as Beyond Meat burger, is going to be more of a lasting trend rather than a fad. There’s a growing gluten-free and dairy-free movement, and peas and pulses can be involved in making gluten-free noodles and dairy-free products, respectively. Furthermore, a growing middle class across Asia and Africa will drastically increase consumer demand for protein-based products. Market size for such products is already estimated at $8 billion and growing.

The wide variety of pulses grown in Western Canada offer processors lots of food production options. Every protein has its own functionality: canola proteins function differently from soy and chickpeas, etc. It really comes down to what industry needs are. Burger manufacturers, for example, are presently working with soybean proteins due to their high texturized nature; however, peas are also proving to offer similar attributes and new products are now being formulated with this ingredient.

Even farmers see this growing demand of pulse varieties positively; not only will it help facilitate crop planting rotations, which helps decrease the nitrogen depletion of soil, but it will also help limit diseases that result from extensive single crop planting.

Three notable institutions located near Parkland County are presently developing extensive know-how and expertise around protein fractionation.

In Leduc, Alberta, out of a 140,000 square feet government-owned food pilot plant and product development laboratory equipped with over $20 million in equipment, world class scientists at the Food Processing Development Center work with any sized company to support food product innovation, process development, and commercialization. The Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator located at the Center, which supports new food businesses and established food manufacturers, is about to receive an additional CAN $2.6  million to invest in equipment such as a spray dryer used in protein fractionation to help companies develop new plant-based foods and products. Here there’s no need for upfront capital costs — small companies can simply lease equipment for just $500 a day to perform scale fractionation of plant proteins, test the incorporation of extracted protein sources within new food products, and ultimately test product with end consumers to determine viability.

Located nearby in Edmonton, Alberta, the Centre for Culinary Innovation at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), a leader in technical training and applied education, is also supporting the development of new or improved pulse-based food products, equipment, and processes, with a focus on creating tangible value for industry partners.  The process of developing new food products requires sensitivity to, and integration of, many disciplines including consumer insights, health and nutrition, culinary arts, food science, manufacturing systems, and marketing.

Exciting plant protein research is also coming out of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, specifically around the development of simple air current technology to separate components from grains and the nano capsulation of protein material as a design delivery system for nutraceuticals and drugs.

GrainFrac, a company that spun out of the University of Alberta, has commercialized a fractionation technology called ACAPS used for beta-glucan production, a functional soluble dietary fiber used to reduce cholesterol and sugar levels in products that is 40% less costly than traditional technologies and is more sustainable; it requires far less water, electricity, and gas. Seeing that market demand for ACAPS is tenfold, the company is looking to expand its infrastructure footprint and is seeking potential investors and partners.

To meet the growing global demand for plant-based proteins, the Canadian government is investing heavily into capacity building around protein fractionation to transform itself from just a commodity producer to a finished-ingredient producer. A new Protein Innovation Supercluster Initiative is receiving $3 million in funding from the Canadian Government, industry, and academia to develop new uses for pulse processing by-products such as starch and fiber. Through this project, products that were once considered waste will be turned into fertilizer to deliver nutrients to plants as well as feed for livestock. Under an agreement signed with Protein Industries Canada, the Government is investing up to nearly $153 million in the supercluster, with industry expected to match dollar for dollar in project value over a five-year horizon. The Protein Industries Supercluster is expected to create more than 4,500 jobs and add more than $4.5 billion to Canada’s economy over 10 years.

Close access to raw materials is one of the key reasons why over 120 food processing businesses have established operation in Alberta; notable examples include Richardson Oilseed, Sunrise Processors, and Sunnyrose Cheese (Agropur). Couple this with the region’s large affordable and qualified labor pool; low cost of land, electricity, and water; easy access to markets; recent regulation reduction initiatives; and the planned reduction of the corporate tax rate to 8% by 2022, and it’s very easy to understand why the region continues to attract new F&B companies. Most recently, New Brunswick-based Cavendish Farms announced plans to establish a new $430-million potato processing plant in Lethbridge and Champion Petfoods established a 400,000 square foot plant in Parkland County to produce its Acana and Orijen dog and cat food lines.

The future looks bright for the Alberta agribusiness and F&B sectors thanks to plant-based proteins. Not only do we expect to continue supplying the world with pulse commodities but local expertise in protein fractionation ensures that F&B companies will be able to adapt to the changing dietary needs of global consumers. Who knew that the humble pea could transform an entire industry.

Robert Fernandez, Director of Economic Diversification, Parkland County, is actively recruiting F&B companies to Parkland County, Alberta. Parkland County’s proximity to raw materials and food product development experts as well as easy access to markets make it an ideal location for companies seeking to develop foods and beverages that meet the tastes of future global consumers.