Supercluster bid unites farmers, entrepreneurs and scientists around plant-based proteins

Guest Contributor
August 21, 2017

By Sherry Wasilow

Protein Innovations Canada (PIC) — an agri-food consortium of western Canadian-based companies focused on plant-based proteins and products for human and animal consumption — has entered the race for $950 million in supercluster funding to energize the sector and become an engine of growth.

“Roughly 80% of Canada’s arable land is in Western Canada,” says Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio Inc., the lead applicant for PIC. “Plant-based protein is a $13-billion market opportunity of which Canada currently has a minimal share – less than 10% – and we could double that, but first we need the capacity to do so.”

PIC’s targeted market is comprised of Generation Z consumers — the demographic cohort after the Millennials, born in 1995 or later — which is expected to be the largest group of food consumers by 2020.

Keller says this group is drawn toward natural, high-quality, plant-based protein foods — think freshii menu — that are consumed largely through snacking. “There is a lot of evidence that society is moving toward ‘snackification,’ five or six snacks a day instead of three square meals a day,” he says. Sales of snack foods doubled those of staple foods in 2016 by more than $100 billion, according to PIC’s letter of intent.

Both Keller and Martin Scanlon, associate dean of research in the Univ of Manitoba’s Faculty of Agricultural & Food Science — a PIC co-applicant — emphasize the importance of adding value to traditional agricultural products.

“A value-added focus is critical for redressing Canada’s serious imbalance of trade in processing of agricultural products into food products,” says Scanlon.

Another key focus is innovation across the whole-of-the-protein chain. These include innovations that increase consumer benefits, such as adding amino acids into diets; improving agronomic sciences so that nitrogen, which is essential for proteins, reaches the plants that need it instead of escaping into waterways; and fostering advances in plant genetics so that proteins can function better as food ingredients.

Scanlon has also been involved in the development of the Protein Highway, a recent effort by three Canadian provinces and six northern US states to brand the US-Midwest/Great Plains and Canadian Prairie region as a potential provider of protein to the world. While the Protein Highway is not part of PIC’s proposal, many of its ideas are, including uniting farmers, entrepreneurs, and scientists in ventures that will link protein-rich crops with markets.

PIC’s chances of winning supercluster funding could be bolstered by a recent report by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth (“Barton report”) which identified the agri-food sector as a strategic priority for Canada’s economy.

“The council suggested that, given global demand for quality food, Canada’s natural advantages across the country, the breadth and diversity of our agricultural system, as well as our innovation potential—the agri-food sector could be a case example for how Canada could unleash its potential,” says David McInnes, former president of the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute. “They also recommended that innovation play a key role in terms of issues and opportunities facing the sector: improving the nutritional quality of food, leveraging Canada's natural advantages, and better managing the soil quality and water that we have.”

Scanlon notes that at least three other groups are also competing for an agri-food supercluster. “Given the importance of innovation, and the fact that the agri-food sector was specifically highlighted in the Barton Report, means that agricultural innovation is very much viewed as critical to success in the country’s economic and social spheres.”

PIC embraces the Barton report’s vision by incorporating it as its own: “Canada will become the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious and sustainable food for the 21rst century.” Two of the methods for doing so are outlined in the letter of intent: adapting to a market shifting toward micro brands, and online food delivery.

“The supercluster initiative really puts the onus on industry to step up and be engaged,” says Dave Dzisiak, global commercial director for grains and oils at Dow AgroSciences Canada Inc, another co-applicant. “Usually these programs recycle money back through the university system or public-research institutions, which is fine. But you are going to get a different outcome than when you have an industry-driven focus.”

Dzisiak described Canada as a leader in the production of canola and a major producer of “pulse crops,” such as peas, lentils, chick peas and beans.

However, as both Keller and Scanlon observe, Canada does very little in terms of secondary processing even though this is where significant job growth lies.

“The PIC has a really good product focus on proteins; we only consume 10% of what we produce in Canada,” says Dzisiak. “So we can give industry new product lines to be commercialized, creating new processing jobs, new manufacturing jobs (and) new construction jobs for processing facilities.”

“That's why you need an ecosystem, and a visionary and agile board,” adds Keller. “We need to think about creating a global centre for producing these products as well as marketing them. Roughly 80% of our initial focus will be on post farm-gate value addition, for example, turning chick peas into hummus, and the remaining 20% will go into production, for example, enriching bread or pasta with protein from chick peas. [Furthermore,] we are not blind to the fact that there are other emerging products such as hemp and flax.”


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