With multiple plant protein processing plants having opened or being built in Alberta, opportunities abound for the province.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill Greuel is the chief executive officer of Protein Industries Canada (PIC). PIC is a not-for-profit organization funded by the Canadian government. The group invests in large scale science and innovation projects to help drive Canada’s plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector. Before PIC, Greuel worked at a mix of public and private sector companies, ranging from small regional seed companies to large multinational ag chemical companies, to about 15 years with the government of Saskatchewan in various roles.
Alberta Seed Guide (ASG): What’s the current climate like in Alberta for plant protein processing?
Bill Greuel (BG): It’s a very exciting time for plant-based processing in Alberta. We’re working with a number of organizations that are developing new and novel processing technologies. And Alberta is a great location for this for a number of reasons.
First off, the amount of crop that is grown there. The second is a very strong investment environment. And the third is a lot of great transportation infrastructure that allows for a crop to move from where it’s being produced to where it’s being processed, and then off to new markets, and a lot of interest from the investment community as well.
ASG: Last year we did see a bit of a setback for the Alberta pulse processing industry when the funding for the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta was cut. What impact has that had on the province?
BG: It’s always challenging when organizations who are focused on the growth of value-added processing aren’t recapitalized. Did that have a setback for the industry? I think at the end of the day, what we do see is, it’s really companies that have to make investments. They’re the ones that create jobs and GDP and make the investment.
It’s always good to have non-profit organizations that advocate for that on behalf of the sector. But at the end of the day, it’s still a very strong investment climate in Alberta to support the growth of value-added processing.
ASG: There’s been a lot of plant protein processing announcements in Alberta over the last year. What has stirred this interest in the province?
BG: I think there’s a few things that that are underpinning it, and one is certainly the growth trajectory of the plant-based food sector. If you look on a global basis, there’s a couple of things that are underpinning the growth of ingredient processing, and one is certainly population growth.
Population on a global basis continues to grow. The demand for food globally is increasing. In addition to that, consumer preference is changing and that’s being driven by a number of things. It can be consumers are more conscientious of the environmental impact of the food products they’re eating. Consumers are making choices based on values like animal welfare. Consumers are making choices based on wanting convenience. They want good, healthy, nutritious food, and plant-based foods checks the box for all of those. The overall global demand is driving it.
But I think what Alberta has to offer is this combination of access to raw commodities, to the feedstock, the great transportation environment, the entrepreneurial spirit of people in Alberta, and the transportation infrastructure. All of those things are combining to make it a very attractive location for investments in value added processing.
ASG: What should Alberta farmers keep in mind when seeing these plant announcements? What impact is there to farmers by having multiple plants of this kind located in the province?
BG: I think it’s a really exciting time for farmers. When I think about it, the more options that a producer has to deliver raw commodities to a local processing facility, the better it is for their farm for a number of reasons.
One is, we all know that in the recent past, we’ve had transportation bottlenecks caused by weather and labour disruptions in rail lines in Canada. We’ve had some of our export markets shutting down the importation of raw commodities. In China that was canola, based on geopolitical issues and challenges. The Indian market was largely closed off from pulse importations due to domestic policies that they introduced in India.
So really what this diversification of domestic markets does is give producers more options, it buffers against the global commodity prices, the geopolitical forces, the environmental forces, the trade disruption. And not only that, it creates jobs in the in the local market, which is always good for rural economies.
ASG: When should farmers start increasing their acreages for these processing plants?
BG: Farmers are always going to make choices for the crops that they grow based on a number of criteria. And it could be everything from agronomic decisions to the price of commodities. And so, I think producers will have to respond to market signals.
I think the really interesting thing about what’s going to happen, is local processing facilities in different regions of Alberta will lead to new relationships between farmers and processing facilities. So, farmers should think about the relationship that they have with the local processing facility, so they can make long term plans around crop rotation, as opposed to responding or changing acreage, because there’s so many factors that affect the impact of producer’s rotation. I think the best thing to do is to create a great working relationship with local processors, from a farmer’s perspective.
ASG: Are there more opportunities for plant protein processing in the province?
BG: Yeah, I think there is. If you look today in Canada, we only process less than 20 per cent of all the crop that we grow. That means that there is a huge upside potential. We did some work with Ernst and Young in 2020. And that work indicated that in order to satisfy just the alternative meat market on a global basis, we need to process another 40 million metric tons of crop production on an annual basis.
For Canada, we could easily increase processing capacity by three to five million metric tons, and still not achieve 10 per cent of the global market. If you think about what that means for Alberta, that could be hundreds of thousands, if not a million, acres of additional processing capacity could be built, and there’s certainly a market for that.
ASG: The Canadian government is currently looking at updating the country’s plant-based food regulations. What does this mean for farmers and what impact will it have on the country’s plant protein processing industry?
BG: I think anytime that government can enable innovation through regulatory change, it’s a good day. What the government of Canada is looking at is a few different things, making it more attractive for companies to innovate both ingredients and plant-based food. Anytime that we can do that, and we can increase the domestic consumption, or we can make Canada more attractive for processing, both ingredients and food, from a regulatory perspective. That increases investment in ingredient manufacturing and plant-based food manufacturing, which has follow on opportunities for producers to diversify markets, to have markets that are close to home, which gets back to this conversation that we had about insulating ourselves against trade disruption and geopolitical forces, and disruptions in transportation.