Manitoba

Plant-based proteins an opportunity, not a threat, to Manitoba farmers, summit told

Manitobans are not immune to the emerging demand for plant-based protein, and one professor in food research says farmers should embrace the change rather than dismiss it.

Manitoba government sees province at leading edge of growing appetite for plant-based meat alternatives

Food distribution expert Sylvain Charlebois acknowledged that some meat producers feel threatened by the growing appetite for plant-based proteins like the Beyond Meat burger, but said there are opportunities for meat producers and plant-based food producers to work together. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

You can have your meat and tofu, too.

That's the message a professor in food research delivered a conference Thursday, saying Manitobans are not immune to the emerging demand for plant-based protein — but farmers should embrace the change rather than dismiss it.

In front of an audience of agriculture industry workers at the first Manitoba Protein Summit on Thursday morning, Sylvain Charlebois acknowledged that some producers feel threatened by the growing appetite for plant-based proteins like the Beyond Meat burger, and restaurants like A&W for championing it.

He insisted that fast-food joints aren't betraying beef producers, but are rather trying to offer consumers another choice.

"You can say all you want about A&W, but people like to go there and they enjoy going there," said Charlebois, director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"You have to respect the consumer," he added. "Giving a choice to consumers is a good thing — for everyone."

He encouraged the agriculture sector to embrace plant-based innovations, which include new products that go beyond traditional tofu dogs and burgers in their ingredients (the Beyond Meat burger, for example, includes pea protein and canola oil, while Impossible Food's patties have soy protein and coconut oil).

"If you do it right, with the right protein strategy, you can distinguish yourself and present your product very differently as part of a much larger portfolio of protein choices."

Charlebois, a food researcher, says farmers shouldn't feel threatened by the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Carson Callum, general manager of the Manitoba Beef Producers, says the beef sector is often unfairly maligned, and its producers offer a nutritious product and use sustainable farming practices.

But he sees a place on store shelves for both beef and plant-based substitutes. 

"We need to make sure we work collaboratively, because we both fit in the grocery store."

Province announces new strategy

Charlebois says the Manitoba government understands the potential.

At Thursday's summit, the province unveiled a protein strategy for the first time, with the hopes that producers of plant-based and animal-based products can work together to make Manitoba a leader in the developing industry.

The strategy includes signing a cross-border agreement so Manitoba researchers and companies can work with other provinces and states to develop new uses for proteins.

The province will also support the industry with a $362,000 investment in the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie — a non-profit government agency — develop a consortium of protein industry experts, and create a friendly competition between protein entrepreneurs to accelerate the creation of new products, Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler announced at Canad Inns Polo Park in Winnipeg.

The initiatives aim to attract new jobs and grow the hog, beef and other animal-protein industries to meet market needs, he said.

"We feel we've set the stage to go forward for not only companies in Manitoba, but future companies to come to Manitoba as well," Eichler said.

The province is already making its mark on the burgeoning plant-based protein industry, luring two significant processing plants.

Roquette is constructing a massive $400-million pea processing facility near Portage la Prairie, and the shovel hit the ground two weeks ago on a $65-million plant from Merit Functional Foods in northwest Winnipeg.

A rendering of Merit Functional Foods Corporation's 88,000-square-foot pea and canola protein extraction facility in the northwest area of Winnipeg. (Submitted/Raymond S.C. Wan Architect Inc.)

Ryan Bracken is co-CEO with Merit, a startup company seeking to build a 88,000-square-foot facility to extract plant-based protein from peas and canola. He expects the company's products to be used as ingredients by major food companies around the world.

"Ultimately, we're not here to replace animal protein," he said.

"The population of the world is growing rapidly and there's a need for significantly larger and larger amounts of protein to feed the world. We believe that we are part of that solution."

Steaks won't go away: Charlebois

A Dalhousie University study released last year found three in 10 Canadians were thinking of reducing their meat consumption over the next six months.

Charlebois acknowledges it won't be easy to convince meat producers that plant-based products are an opportunity rather than a threat.

"Time and time again, what we're hearing is that our current path when it comes to proteins is unsustainable, and I agree with it.

"It doesn't mean that steak will cease to exist. It will continue to exist — but steaks are going to be sold, promoted and consumed very differently."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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