Canada’s pulses have a protein problem, and now the group that recommends varieties for CFIA registration says it’s time to add it back into the equation.
The shortfall was under scrutiny during the latest annual meeting of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Pulse and Special Crops (PRCPSC) in Saskatoon Feb. 25-28. The committee highlighted the need to shift priorities more towards protein, following both growing concerns from end-users and the emergence of new protein demand, such as the Roquette pea plant, slated to open in Portage la Prairie by the end of next year.
Breeder priorities for beans, lentils, peas and other pulses have been heavily skewed towards yield, recommending committee chair Glen Hawkins said.
Why it matters: Pulse breeders have been looking for bigger yields and better adaptation, but end-users are putting more push on protein and those responsible for recommending new varieties for registration now find themselves shuffling priorities.
“As a committee, we’re cognizant of the fact that for the last six or eight years, we’ve traded yield for protein and that’s just a genetic thing that occurs in most crops,” he said. “But as a committee now, we’re cognizant that we need to now look at protein.”
Manitoba Agriculture has also noted the need for a shift. Dennis Lange, Manitoba Agriculture pulse specialist, has cited a general slide in protein levels across the Prairies over the last decade.
“There’s lots of unanswered questions about protein in general, whether it’s in peas or soybeans,” he said after an appearance at Ag Days 2019, a presentation that he shared with a representative from Roquette. “A lot of it could be related to weather that we do have, different environments that we’re growing (in). Some of it could be related to the varieties that we’re growing as well, because if you look at the history of breeding field peas, it’s been for yield, for disease tolerance, and sometimes certain things drop off, and protein hasn’t been highest on the priority list.”
Lange’s own research projects have been exploring the question of pulse protein levels.
Last year marked the first time pea protein in Western Canada broke 23 per cent since 2014. Western peas averaged 23.1 per cent protein on a dry matter basis across grades in 2018, according to the Canadian Grain Commission, slightly lower than 2010’s 23.9 per cent, and up from the 22.1-22.6 per cent reported from 2015-17.
Protein content also came to a head in the soybean market last year, after reports that Viterra had introduced low-protein discounts. Farmers at the time reported a $6-per-tonne discount for soybeans falling under 33 per cent protein, jumping to prohibitive levels if protein fell below 32 per cent.
Market conditions have helped push protein down the priority list, according to Hawkins, since there is no premium to be had for farmers compared to the reward of extra yield.
“If you want to sell a variety to a Canadian farmer, it’s based on yield,” he said. “Most of our trials, everything pushes yield. We’re looking at three, four, five per cent better than the checks, and that’s a significant increase for the average farmer. Now we have to be cognizant that we’re not giving up one or two points of protein to get a couple of points of yield.”
Bill Greuel, Protein Industries Canada CEO, cited protein among the research topics flagged by the federal government’s protein supercluster.
Last year, the federal government earmarked up to $950 million in innovation and research funding to be spread out across five sector superclusters — groups of universities, companies and non-profits in each of those sectors that then partner to streamline innovation. That government funding was to be matched by industry.
Protein industries made that list. About 20 per cent of the investment slated for the protein supercluster will go to the creation of new genetics, Greuel said, including priorities like protein content, quality and protein concentration.
The supercluster says it will spread out its investment funding across the value chain, although 60 per cent of those funds are marked for industry improvements after the crops leave the farm.
“There is a value chain here, and that value chain needs to be compensated for everything that we’re doing,” Greuel said. “That’s why we’re making investments in all four sectors of the value chain and I don’t think anybody would believe that we’re going to be successful if the value chain is not compensated for what it is that they’re providing, right from the plant breeder, through to the producer, through to the grain handler and the processor and the food manufacturer.”
The supercluster is providing science and innovation funding, he said, but added that any drive to reprioritize protein for future plant breeding would have to come from industry.
He has seen that industry interest, he said.
“I think processors are recognizing very clearly that if they can get at the front end of this value chain, which is plant breeding, and the next stage, which is at a grower level, there’s things agronomically where producers might be able to influence production decisions that can drive protein content,” he said. “That makes processing much more efficient and so we’re actually starting to see discussions (in) the value chain of protein content and functionality being recognized downstream. Now, the hope is that some of that value flows back to producers.”
That may take the form of premiums, he said, but could also appear as new delivery options as value-added processing plants grow in Western Canada.
Four new dry bean lines, five lentil, six yellow pea and one new green pea variety passed the recommending committee’s standards this year. Of those, most selling points still centred around yield and agronomics, including maturity, standability and ease of harvest.
At the same time, Hawkins said, all pea lines up for approval this year had equal or slighter greater protein when compared to the checks.