Banking on Plant Protein: An Interview with Protein Industries Canada CEO Bill Greuel
Over the next four years, Canada will invest $153 million in plant protein R&D.
Bill Greuel knows how dramatically agriculture can change. Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan in the ’80s, his family, like most others in the area, seeded mostly wheat. Pulses, he recalls, were not part of the landscape back then.
That changed when the government of Saskatchewan, having previously witnessed the hardships resulting from surplus wheat production, decided alternatives were needed. In pulse crops, it found an opportunity like no other.
“The people who envisioned this pulse industry really understood the growing global demand at the time, especially the trends around food requirements in Asia and India,” Bill explains.
Motivated by the export opportunities the population trends in those overseas markets represented, the government of Saskatchewan set about transforming its agricultural sector. It partnered with the University of Saskatchewan to hire Alfred Slinkard, a plant breeder, and then committed to funding his work over many long years. The result: today Saskatchewan is a major hub of pulse crop research and innovation, and Canada is the world’s top pulse supplier, exporting some 4 million MT per year, mainly to markets in Asia, and particularly to India.
“The industry was built to export raw pulses but being a net exporter of a raw commodity to one major market comes with a lot of risk,” Bill says. “We are facing that today, as India implements protectionist measures and strives for self-sufficiency in pulse production. That means that here in Canada, we have to think about doing things differently.” Just like they did 45 years ago, global consumption trends once again point to pulses as the answer. Driven by consumer demand for nutritious, healthy, environmentally friendly and allergen-free food options, the market for plant-based protein is booming. By 2023, it is expected to hit $14.8 billion.
To seize this opportunity, the government of Canada is making $153 million available over the next four years through Protein Industries Canada to promote research and innovation in plant protein food development. In April, the first call for proposals was issued for $40 million in matching funds. A few weeks later, GPC spoke with Bill by telephone about the implications for the future of Canada’s pulse industry.
GPC: Protein Industries Canada was born out of Canada’s Innovation Supercluster Initiative. Could you tell us more about this novel approach to R&D investment?
Bill: Canada’s investment in science and innovation lags far behind that of other comparable nations. To address this, the government of Canada approached industry with the Innovation Supercluster idea. It put a billion dollars on the table and said, “You tell us where to invest. What are the sectors we should put our energy behind and where can Canada become a global leader?” Sixty different sectors of the economy made their case, and five were ultimately chosen. That Protein Industries Canada was one of them is a testament to the importance of agriculture in our economy—it is Canada’s largest employer and the second biggest contributor to GDP.
GPC: And why the focus on the plant protein?
Bill: I see three mega-trends happening. One is global population growth and the demand for food that it will generate. What’s especially interesting about this is the demographic and population shifts that are taking place. In Asia, 940 million people will be entering the middle class in the next 25 years. Generally, when people have more to spend, they buy more food, and that translates into increased protein consumption. On top of that, Western diets are changing; people are more health conscious and more focused on the sustainability and environmental impacts of the food they eat. And then there is the growth taking place in livestock feed, aquaculture and pet food. All this adds up to greater demand for protein, and plant protein will play a significant role in meeting that demand.
It is an opportunity that is tailor made for Western Canada. We’ve got 70 million acres of land, we produce 60 million MT of crop and 12 million MT of protein. We’ve got tens of thousands of the most innovative farmers in the world that can grow and deliver product at a rate and scale few jurisdictions can globally. We’ve got a backbone of some of the most innovative and high- caliber R&D facilities and researchers in the world that can help us meet the needs of the future. And we’ve got Canada’s worldwide reputation as a supplier of safe and nutritious food. With those trends and that endowment, you have a pretty good long-term sustainable advantage and a real case for investment.
GPC: Indeed, Canada is already seeing new investment in the sector. The French company Roquette and Hollywood director James Cameron are each investing millions. How will this change today’s pulse industry?
Bill: There is a lot of excitement about investing in Western Canada right now, where the production is and where the value can be retained. Over the years, Canada has built its pulse industry up and become the world leader in exporting pulses as raw commodities. Now we are promoting the idea of processing those raw commodities here in Western Canada, fractioning our pulse crops into protein concentrates and isolates, starch and fiber fractions. That opens new avenues of transportation as well as new markets for food, both domestically and abroad. It is going to change the landscape in terms of where we sell and the value we will be extracting from the crops we produce.
GPC: The Supercluster approach requires a partnership between two or more companies. Why is that?
Bill: One of our policy objectives is to increase private sector investment in research and development. When we invest in a project, the private sector has to make a comparable commitment. Additionally, they are required to collaborate with others in the private sector or academia, and the idea there is that one plus one can equal far greater than two. We know that when companies collaborate we get better solutions, we get better diffusion of intellectual property throughout the ecosystem, we get higher returns on R&D investments, we get companies working together in different verticals of the value chain that maybe didn’t view themselves as partners before, collaborating on R&D and driving the economy forward. There’s no question this may feel a little uncomfortable for private sector companies. It might not be something they thought about before, but we hope they’ll see its value.
GPC: By the end of the fourth year, what does success look like?
Bill: By year four, we want to be processing more raw commodities here in Western Canada. We want to create new products that have different functional uses and higher values than what we are producing today. We also want to see higher levels of collaboration between private sector companies and with academic institutions.
At the same time, we know that $153 million is not enough to do what needs to be done in this sector. I would say those first four years are the first steps on a long journey to building something of lasting importance for Western Canada.