Taking the pulse on pulses

USask is part of a collaborative supercluster that will put Canada on the world stage through innovative plant-based protein development.

Bob Deutscher (BComm'10)

Pulses are all the rage these days and a supercluster team, including USask grads, is going to make sure the recent rapid rise in popularity continues around the world.

Pulses—which are dried seeds from plants in the legume family—are touted for multiple health benefits. A low glycemic index combined with high protein and fibre make lentils, chickpeas, dry peas and dry beans nutritional superstars.

But the health benefits go beyond human nutrition. Growing pulses adds nitrogen to soil and help break disease cycles, which means healthier soil and increased yields to subsequent crops. And these crops grow well on marginalized land.

In addition to being consumed whole, pulses can be ground into flour or separated into protein, fibre and starch. Those co-products can then be developed into a range of products, from protein powders to animal feed. 

Canada is a leading producer and exporter of pulses worldwide and 90 per cent of those crops are grown in Saskatchewan. Research efforts at USask’s Crop Development Centre (CDC) have gone a long way towards ensuring pulses’ long-term sustainability, with new varieties developed to better sustain the short growing season.

With the demand for pulses continuing to grow, a new initiative called the Protein Industries Canada supercluster (PIC) aims to take advantage of the market and make Canada a world leader in the plant-based proteins.

PIC is an innovation hotbed that spans over 1,500 km and includes over 120 organizations based in six epicentres, including USask.

The collaborative efforts at USask will help contribute to PIC’s four pillars; create, grow, make and market, while providing meaningful and long-lasting impact at the local level and on a global scale. 


Leading Protein Industries Canada into the Future

In 2018, the federal Innovation Superclusters Initiative announced PIC would be one of five national superclusters to receive funding. The initiative is the first of its kind for Canada and will invest up to $950 million to support business-led superclusters and accelerate innovation in the country. In November 2018, PIC’s $153-million contribution agreement was signed.

Canadian pulse crops have grown steadily over the last three decades, in keeping with North American consumer trends seeking plant (rather than animal) protein and the international export market. For example, in countries like India, pulses are a traditional staple protein.

Pulses’ robust nutrition profile is further amplified when combined with grains on the dinner plate to provide complete protein. They are also used in high-protein feed for meat animals. As the global middle-class population rises, so too does their appetite for meat.

Because of all this, pulses are a $13-billion market world wide. PIC aims to move Canada to second place in global agricultural exports and fifth in agri-food exports, equivalent to $30 billion USD in today’s distribution of global exports.

PIC’s CEO Bill Greuel (BSA’95, MSc’00) will lead the supercluster to develop Canada’s plant-based protein potential.

He explained the supercluster will invest in and help develop plant breeding and genomics, primary production, value-added processing, market development and access, and servicing those markets through improved traceability and logistics.

The value chain is one of many emerging challenges Greuel, who was formerly the assistant deputy minister, Regulatory and Innovation at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, would like PIC to tackle.

Greuel referenced the current Western Canadian investments into protein fractionation. The process removes pea protein, but results in high starch products and is just one area of many that PIC will focus on.

“We need to find some uses for those (products) because that changes the economics of processing,” said Greuel.

Dr. Bob Tyler (BSA’76, PHD’82), agreed.

A professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences, and PIC’s interim chief technology officer, Tyler said the strength in developing protein ingredients lies in finding uses for the co-products, such as the starch and fibre.

“In pulses, maybe you recover 20 to 30 per cent of the raw material as a protein ingredient… what about all the starch and fibre?” he said.

It’s an issue other companies, like Roquette, the world’s leading pea isolate producer, and James-Cameron-backed Verdient Foods Inc., are tackling and will collaborate on with PIC.

Murad Al-Katib (BComm’94)

Murad Al-Katib (BCOMM’94) is the president and CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients. The Saskatchewan-based company is one of the largest value-added pulse processors and PIC’s anchor company. Al-Katib is a PIC board director and said one of the supercluster’s goals is finding economically viable uses for the co-products.

“The pulse industries have had a good, solid foundation of innovation and research and commercialization. Now we need to step it up into the value creation,” said Al-Katib.

He attributed much of the pulse industry’s boom to USask researchers such as Dr. Albert Vandenberg (PhD’87) and Dr. Tom Warkentin (PhD’92). Over the last few decades, the CDC has introduced drought and disease-resistant seed varieties. These pulse varieties have helped Saskatchewan become Canada’s leading pulse producer.

“Through breeding and agronomy, we’ve been able to achieve massive growth in yields in these crops—that’s not through genetic modification—that’s through trait, breeding and agronomy programs,” said Al-Katib.

The next step is to create wealth with that knowledge by reacting to consumer trends and growing global populations.

“PIC is about energizing the research sector—with the private sector leading to ensure the commercialization of these projects,” said Al-Katib.

“The concept of crop processing and the utilization of all the components of the crop is a big part of our future,” explained Al-Katib.

Today, the majority of the Prairies’ pulse crops leave the country, unprocessed or with only initial bagging, cleaning and splitting. The canola industry was in a similar state 35 years ago. Today, Western Canada has several canola crushing plants, and this is the direction the PIC would like to take as well.

“We are processing almost 50 per cent of our crop, we’re shipping out oil (and) meal— that has direct impact on producers because it changes the economics of production,” said Greuel.

“I think we can imagine a pulse sector that looks like that 10 or 15 years from now.”

Other economic opportunities for PIC lie in Asia’s growing middle class, a demographic whose spending is expected to top $33 trillion by 2030 and millennial consumer trends are moving away from highly processed foods and more into plant-based proteins like lentils and chickpeas.

“The consumer today is looking for natural, minimally processed foods. That’s the opportunity for PIC to create high protein, high fibre, healthy, nutritious foods and ingredients that are going to be traceable, identity preserved and food safe,” said Al-Katib, adding it must be done in an environmentally sustainable way.

“If we’re going to respond to 10 billion people by 2050, we need protein rich, water-efficient crops that can be produced on relatively marginal lands.” 

A collaborative campus effort

“We need to dare to be bold. We need to find those niche opportunities and we need to provide the scale to be able to make a true commercial difference at the farm gate and in the industry,” said Al-Katib.

Boldly going where no one has gone before—it’s a familiar slogan for the university community and an ambitious goal the campus is more than ready to tackle.

Tyler has been involved in plant protein processing research since the late 70s. He’s the USask liaison in the supercluster  program and will serve as the link between researchers and others on campus that want to get involved with PIC.

“That’s what it’s all about—building an ecosystem consortium where university researchers and service providers all work together with small and large companies to generate value and employment and ultimately build [research and development] capacity in both the public and private sector,” said Tyler.

Many disciplines at USask will have an influential stake in the supercluster program.

“It will engage people from all over the campus with levels of funding that we haven’t ever seen before in this kind of work,” said Tyler, adding the potential for training post-doctoral scientists and graduate students, while also providing internships for undergraduates, is unprecedented.

He pointed to the marketing work those in Agriculture Resource Economics and at the Edwards School of Business will contribute. With new protein ingredients comes the question of where and to whom those ingredients will be sold.

More so, the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition will be involved in looking at areas such as amino acid composition and protein digestibility for improved protein ingredients. So too will be the Global Institute for Food Security, which works to deliver sustainable food security to developing countries through agriculture and food production innovations. 

Impacting Saskatchewan agriculture

Carl Potts (BSA’99, MSC’02), executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, said PIC’s four pillars align well with the pulse industry’s current strategies.

The Canadian pulse industry has set a goal to create demand in new use areas for 25 per cent of domestic production by 2025. That translates into two million additional tonnes of demand for pulses in the next six years.

A lofty goal, but PIC’s incentive to create new ingredients will help the Pulse Growers diversify markets and perhaps become less reliant on traditional commodity markets.

“We’re hopeful with the work of PIC and the funding they have that there may be an opportunity to push the market development goals of the pulse sector and PIC together,” Potts said.

That new demand creation and diversified market is “tremendously important,” and will ensure higher value and more consistent demand for farmers. Markets closer to home also equal a higher value and less reliance on the West Coast export transportation system.

Saskatchewan Pulse Growers works with Pulse Canada on market development. The three- to five-year plan includes significant work with food companies to increase the awareness of pulses and drive more adoption—which is also a component of PIC’s strategy.

“We’re also a significant funder of pulses research,” said Potts of the $9 to $12 million they invest annually. “We’ll look for opportunities to leverage those investment dollars to create bigger opportunities and potentially do more work with some of the funds that PIC has available.”

Creating a global powerhouse in the plant protein

Potts said the growth in plant-based protein trends will give PIC a competitive edge.

“PIC certainly has the potential—with the funds available and with the idea of creating a global powerhouse in plant protein here on the Prairies—that we can create the infrastructure to help Canada be a centre for plant-based protein,” said Potts.

Greuel acknowledged the federal government for its investment, and recognition that the value-added processing sector has opportunity for growth, calling it an “exciting time for the ag sector.”

Of course, there are challenges PIC must face; the value-added processing sector won’t change overnight.

“We’re taking a long-term view—trying to create the markets and conditions that will bring the capital investment for increased value-added processing here to the Prairies,” said Greuel.

Al-Katib said the market is ready but, “it’s not a slam dunk.

“It’s what do we do with it? That’s the call to action that I’m hopeful the supercluster will have as a message,” said Al-Katib.

The role public policy plays

The PIC supercluster is a ground-breaking area for economic development and innovation policy.

Dr. Peter Phillips (BA’80, PhD), distinguished professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and his students, have been exploring aspects of measuring PIC’s economic impact.

Phillips has been involved since PIC’s beginning, helping to conceptualize the organization and design it to extend beyond the conventional, industrial cluster that tends to be located in cities, not regions.

Saskatchewan is already home to an innovative bioscience cluster focused on food and agriculture. In fact, over one-third of Canada’s ag-biotech industry is in Saskatchewan.

Phillips helped PIC’s development team gauge the potential impact of the supercluster’s many components. Now, there are significant policy elements to be addressed. The big questions Phillips asks is, “If you do it, will it matter?

“Quite often in public space, we spend some money, we say we want to do something, we demonstrate we did it and then we announce we have accomplished the mission—but what was the impact?” said Phillips.

Although it’s still early days for PIC (an official launch is expected spring 2019), Phillips and the management team have been discussing how academics and students might explore some of the project’s policy aspects.

“There are students who are keen on this stuff; they just need an opportunity to get inside and touch something that’s real.”

There will be a number of long-term training and learning opportunities for USask students interested in studying aspects of PIC.

Since superclusters tend to be self-sustaining, there will be a long-term opportunity to see how focused ventures can change outcomes.

“At the end of five years, they should have structured themselves in a way that they don’t need another capital infusion,” said Phillips.

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