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A tale of two proteins

Are plant and animal proteins competitors or complementary under the province’s new ‘protein strategy’?

The provincial government wants Manitoba to be a protein province, but the jury is still out on where that investment will fall between livestock and plant-based protein.

The province has said both plant and animal protein sectors will benefit from the government’s Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy.

Ralph Eichler.
photo: Allan Dawson

“We’re positioned so well, probably better than any other province,” Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said, pointing to sharp growth in the sheep and chicken sectors and developing businesses such as canola crushers and incoming pea protein plant Roquette, set to open in Portage next year.

The province also hopes to draw opportunities through groups like Protein Industries Canada, although the federal supercluster prioritizes plant protein over animal.

“I’m bullish,” Eichler said. “We’ve had those conversations and I’m going to stay my course… I’m not going to walk away from our animal protein at all. In fact, we’re going to see increases in the animal protein as we go forward.”

A Feb. 1 provincial policy paper outlines an added $500 million in primary livestock production and processing investment by 2025 and 35 per cent more animal protein produced compared to 2017.

More TLC needed?

Plant protein in general, however, needs more development than established livestock markets, Robin Young, chief operating officer with Manitoba’s Food Development Centre, said.

There are still technical questions around extraction, she said, as well as discussion on the functionality of that protein once it is extracted.

“How will you evaluate what the product will do?” she said. “It’s not enough to get the protein out of a pea.”

The next questions revolve around that product’s functionality and fit into the existing food production system, she said.

On top of that, she added, there are still regulatory hurdles with Health Canada and how any new protein product will be marked on labels.

There is also the question of co-products. New protein products will mean new byproducts left over from extraction. The Food Development Centre is among those working to develop those into new products and new markets, Young said.

Eichler says the province will have to focus more on plant protein to address those gaps.

“We just haven’t been there in the past,” he said. “But when you have companies like Roquette and companies like Simplot that have seen the opportunities — and there’s many spinoffs that come from both of them — how do we multiply that in a way that’s going to help us get even more products out of it?”

In 2018, Simplot also announced a $460-million expansion to its Portage la Prairie plant, expected to be complete by this fall.

Growers’ view

Daryl Domitruk, director of research and production with the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers, says they support the province’s “combined plant-meat approach to protein.”

The Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers will have its own meetings with the province later in April.

“It’s all going to need some significant development, but the opportunities exist in both and it gives us the opportunity to develop a really integrated industry here where, perhaps, more of our crops are used to feed livestock, which is producing meat protein, but at the same time that doesn’t preclude more of the plant products from also going directly into the human food plant protein supply chain,” he said.

The province hopes to draw $1 billion in plant protein-processing investment by 2025, according to the Feb. 1 paper.

Domitruk also acknowledged the development gap between plant and animal protein. Soybeans remain the dominant protein market among their farmers. At the same time, he added, the province may be well placed to capitalize on other crops, assuming the infrastructure and research necessary to develop those commodities are in place.

“The dominant market is soy,” Young acknowledged, but pointed to a general uptick in protein demand. “As the market grows, there’s an opportunity for other commodities to fill in the gap.”

Her organization is working with companies to address infrastructure questions and whether scaling up investment is feasible, she said.

“When you look at the hemp industry, there’s already good processing capacity, so maybe it’s a good opportunity,” she said. “We’ve got oat-processing capacity. We’ve got canola-crushing capacity. Canola is an interesting one in that the way that they crush and then treat the meal to get the most fat out does present some challenges in working with that protein.”

Peas are also moving up the priority list, she said.

Livestock issues

Both the beef and pork sectors got special mention in the January announcement. Eichler has long stated his intention to grow Manitoba’s beef herd to pre-BSE levels, while the pork sector has noted its processing capacity currently outweighs the number of available hogs.

Manitoba’s beef processing, however, may be a weak link, according to Eichler.

True North Foods in Carman is currently the only beef- or bison-processing plant in Manitoba to be certified with the CFIA, and therefore the only one eligible to process meat for export outside of Manitoba.

“True North, at this point, just doesn’t have the capacity to meet a large scale of demand for protein,” Eichler said, but noted that the processor will have a role in the upcoming strategy.

The province’s Feb. 1 consultation paper suggests a 35 per cent increase in livestock-processing capacity over 2017 levels by 2025. There is little word on how much of that increase will go to the beef sector.

“Businesses will expand as they get capital and demand for their product, but you can’t expand it and hope that the product expansion will grow with you. You have to have some faith in your product first before you can do that,” Eichler said. “And, quite frankly, we don’t have a large number of feedlots in Manitoba, so we rely a lot on Alberta or Ontario to do our processing for us.”

The province has actively worked to expand pork processing, such as throwing support behind an expansion at Hylife Foods in western Manitoba.

Tom Teichroeb, Manitoba Beef Producers president, said the suggested processing jump, “captures the imagination.”

Both the beef and pork industries have had good news on the trade front recently, although Teichroeb cited challenges that remain to access new markets like the EU.

He said there are important issues, like labour availability, that affect the meat sector at the farm and processing level.

“To fulfil that potential and to make sure that we can realize all that potential, we need to find a stable labour supply and that will be absolutely key in achieving those possibilities,” Teichroeb said.

“We all, as an entire province, really need to focus on what the little pieces are that will convince the primary producer to have confidence and build that cow herd and then build all the little pieces behind it.”

MBP also flagged Crown land changes as an issue, as well as changes to animal transportation regulations and the prolonged effects of last year’s drought.

The next step will see the province unveil industry proposals and a discussion paper, during a specifically planned event at Winnipeg’s Canad Inns Polo Park Sept. 16.

The public can submit written feedback on the strategy until May 15 either through mail or email at mbproteinad [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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