Pulse crops might become less about size and colour and more about efficacy and variety, as the plant-protein industry continues to grow.
It would be as if the pulse industry had its own malt barley sector and would let producers diversify their market, said Pulse Canada chief executive officer Gordon Bacon.
“This is really unique because it’s not about a new geography opening up. It’s about a new sector within the food spectrum,” he said. “It changes a lot for the pulse industry.”
Other spinoffs could include providing farmers with a more balanced crop rotation, said Tom Warkentin, a professor and plant breeder who specializes in pulses at the University of Saskatchewan.
Peas would be a viable option, he said, rather than the typical wheat and canola cycles.
“We need a third option in the canola and wheat rotation,” Warkentin said. “It’s good to have a nitrogen-fixing crop like pulses.”
But what will it take to further build the industry?
Proponents say plant protein is already competitive, but industry needs to build more capacity to meet growing consumer demand.
“The growth in plant-based proteins, especially pea, has been astounding the past five years and shows no signs of letting up,” said Jon Getzinger, chief marketing officer with Puris, the largest North American producer of pea protein.
“We need to add capacity to meet growing consumer demand for great-tasting, plant-based products, and remain steadfast in building out a supply chain back to the farm that is completely transparent,” he said.
Companies like Cargill, which is in a joint venture with Puris, are capitalizing.
Cargill has invested a total of $117.5 million in Puris, which has allowed the pea-protein processor to more than double production capacity. The investment hasn’t been done at the expense of investments in animal protein, the company said, explaining it’s an addition to expand its portfolio.
As well, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences is offering new plant-based products that it hopes will spur further investment. Food manufacturers would be able to use the offerings to create products.
The choices include tacos, fish soup, iced lattes and creamy desserts made with animal-free ingredients.
The move signals the company’s desire to tap into the growing industry.
It said consumers are adding more plants to their diets, citing a forecast by Euromonitor that projects the plant-protein market to grow by roughly nine percent and be valued at US$23 billion by 2023.
“If the plant-based movement is to have a long-term impact on health and sustainability, we need to provide more options so consumers can quickly identify their personal preferences and speed up change in their purchasing habits,” Sonia Huppert, global marketing leader for plant-based health at DuPont, said in a news release.
But it isn’t just Cargill and DuPont with skin in the game.
Market research groups say both companies, as well as Archer Daniels Midland, Glanbia and Kerry Group will be key players.
All five companies have either acquired smaller plant-protein companies, expanded into the field or have launched new products, according to Mordor Intelligence.
Archers Daniels Midland, for example, has a host of plant-based products that manufacturers can use for processing. The company, like others, has a research and development team focusing on improving product taste and functionality.
“In order to increase their market share, companies are focusing on new innovative products, by targeting the new source of plant proteins, such as hemp and chia,” Mordor Intelligence said in a recent report.
It’s expected that prices for plant-based products will be more comparable to meat as capacity builds. Beyond Meat burgers, for example, are roughly double the price of beef patties, though the company plans to lower prices.
“When the first computers were invented they were expensive and now everyone has got one in their pocket,” Warkentin said. “Developing consumer products from plant protein is still quite a young industry.”
But as companies capitalize, how will farmers benefit?
Bacon said it would provide producers with a broader market base, potentially meaning less volatility in prices. They could become less reliant on countries like India, in which political decisions have produced tariff issues.
“Even if we can achieve 15 to 20 percent of our market base being in this specialized use, the food market isn’t going to be as prone to political interventions as some as the other commodity markets,” he said.
“That provides a bit of a price floor. Whether it’s canola or beef, we all want a diversified market base.”
Warkentin said varietal development will play a role in helping make protein extraction more efficient.
Kofi Agblor, managing director of the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan, said building the plant-protein industry requires a long-term strategic approach.
He sees potential for some CDC crops, including food-type canaryseed, flax, oats, pulses (chickpea, fababean, lentil and pea), and soybeans.
“In the end, a plant-protein patty must be cost-competitive to a beef patty because the current honeymoon premium will not endure,” Agblor said.
A burgeoning plant protein industry might lead to a more sustainable food system given production of such products generally emit less carbon.
Bacon, however, said carbon storage must be considered when consumers are thinking about what to eat.
He said no-till practices, grassland management with livestock and annual cropping in a certain way help with carbon sequestration.
“It’s something to me is that is important, and for us to shift the focus from farming to food,” he said. “It’s about you and I, and everyone else, reducing their food print. The approach, to me, in positioning in all the products that we produce and hopefully manufacture, is about looking at carbon balance.”
Plant protein has sometimes turned into a divisive topic.
Meat producers have sometimes felt under attack by plant-protein advocates, namely vegans.
Some producers say they are being targeted as the main perpetrators of increasing carbon emissions when, in reality, cattle only produce a small percent of overall emissions. Vegans have also taken issue with the fact that animals are killed for food.
To combat this, beef producer groups have been showcasing their land-stewardship efforts, showing that they improve the environment, sequester carbon and maintain sustainability. They, along with other meat producers, have also been telling consumers about their good animal husbandry efforts.
The divisiveness was on full display in 2019 when A&W aired an ad showing Saskatchewan Roughriders fans enjoying a Beyond Meat burger.
Beef producer groups said the ad suggested the Riders endorsed the idea of eating less beef. The club said it wasn’t involved in the production and that A&W is corporate partner and can use the team’s logos.
Despite the divisiveness, Warkentin said there is room for the debate to become more inclusive.
He said agriculture has always produced plants and animals.
“I think it’s a question of providing options for consumers,” he said. “The meat industry is much larger than the plant-based protein market, by far. It’s just another option for people.”
Bacon said he likes to talk about plant-based foods rather than singling out protein. He believes it’s not in competition with animal protein because it’s not about pulse proteins.
“It’s not versus; it can be in combination with,” he said.
“Where is the opportunity for all Canadian agriculture food business? It’s about environmental sustainability and we have a record on animal protein and plant-based foods that we’re really not marketing to the extent possible. This is our opportunity to focus on this environmental record.”