Lentils Could be Part of Canada’s Green Recovery

Prairie provinces are primed to cash in on the thriving plant-based food industry.

A pile of dry lentils appear in various shades of reddish brown.
Photo by Rawpixel

In 2015, Laura Gustafson quit her job selling surgical equipment for a major health-care company to start a food business. Her work had exposed her to the consequences of poor diets. As she spoke to doctors and observed surgeries in operating rooms, she kept hearing about people with obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol who had had heart attacks that landed them on the operating table.

Surely, Gustafson thought, there were better preventative measures people could take. She began dropping into nutrition classes at the University of Saskatchewan and soon found a way she could help solve the problem — with nutrient-rich pulses like lentils, chickpeas, field peas, and beans. (The term “pulse” usually refers to the dried seeds of legumes grown for food.) In 2017, Gustafson launched her company, Ulivit, and started selling pulse protein bars that sourced their key ingredients from local farms.

Today, Gustafson is among a growing number of Canadians building a stake in the Prairie provinces’ thriving pulse industry. Over the past 20 years, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan have together emerged as the world’s largest producer and exporter of pulses. Today, leaning into the growing plant-based food industry could help the Prairies recover from the current recession while reducing their carbon footprint and dependence on oil. “The humble pea could well turn into Canada’s next new gold,” declares a headline in Food Industry Executive, which publishes food industry news.

Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan have together emerged as the world’s largest producer and exporter of pulses.

“Western Canadian provinces are sitting on 1.7 million acres of agricultural land that is ideally suited for the agriculture of protein-based pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas, peas, fava beans, soy, and canola,” writes Robert Fernandez, director of economic diversification at Parkland County, Alberta. He describes the growing interest in plant-based proteins as a boon for farmers in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

A plant-based opportunity

In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Global Economy of Pulses report noted that Canada had emerged as a leading player in pulse production. In 2014 — the most recent year for which FAO data is available — Canada was responsible for 40% of global lentil production and the world’s largest producer of field peas. Canada is also the largest exporter of pulses in the world, with 77% of pulse crops being shipped abroad.

Introducing Canadians to pulses in a new way is what first encouraged Gustafson to start Ulivit. Though she grew up in Saskatchewan — the heart of pulse production in Canada — and practiced veganism for a decade after high school, she was first introduced to pulses in her 20s by her best friend from India. But, it wasn’t until her nutrition classes 15 years later that Gustafson learnt about local pulse production.

“We’re growing this crazy produce right here in our backyard, but we just export all of it,” she says.

Through her products, she wants to create awareness about the versatility and nutrition benefits of pulses. Her company has shifted from protein bars to a tofu alternative made of chickpeas and fava beans for people allergic to soy and gluten.

In North America, sales of plant-based food to replace animal products have increased by 29% in the past two years.

Gustafson plans to tap into a growing plant-based food market worth US$5 billion. Sales of plant-based food and drink intended to replace animal products are on the rise, growing five times faster than other food products, according to point of sale data collected by natural food analytics company SPINS. In North America, grocery sales of plant-based food to replace animal products have increased by 29% in the past two years. Currently, the plant-based meat sector alone is worth US$939 million. By 2027, the entire plant-based food market is expected to be valued at US$74 billion.

Many meat alternatives use pulses as a core ingredient. Beyond Meat — one of the more popular meat substitutes in the market — uses peas, and mung and fava beans (among other ingredients) to create its patty. Tempeh, another meat analogue, uses soybeans or other pulses as its core ingredient.

There’s a lot of “scope” for the pulse industry to grow in this market, says Julianne Curran, vice president of market innovation at Pulses Canada. “[But], we need to diversify,” she adds, explaining that Canadian pulse producers are currently too dependent on traditional markets of India and Turkey for exports. Pulses Canada wants exports to the US to make up 25% of industry growth by 2025.

A field of lentils (left), and a close-up of lentil pods on the vine (right).

The Canadian government is also vying to increase Canada’s stake in the plant-based protein industry. In 2018, it committed up to C$153 million (about US$120 million) in funding over five years to the Protein Industries Canada Supercluster, as part of the country’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative, which funds five promising economic sectors including the plant protein industry. Protein Industries Canada (PIC, the non-profit organization administering the funds) says this collaboration with the government will create more than 4,500 jobs in the next decade and add over C$4.5 billion to the economy.

One of PIC’s goals is to increase Canada’s food processing capacity. In remarks to Canada’s parliamentary agricultural committee, PIC CEO Bill Greuel said that processing an additional 20% of Canadian crops in-country would add C$12 billion to the national economy annually.

In August 2020, as part of its Covid-19 relief program, the federal government allocated C$2.6 million for the Alberta government-owned Food Processing Development Centre to support companies developing plant-based food. “[P]lant-based foods represent a significant economic opportunity for western Canadian firms seeking to meet growing global and consumer demands for protein-rich foods that are healthy and environmentally sustainable,” the federal government’s press release said.

A way to diversify from oil

The pulses industry offers the Prairies an opportunity to diversify their economies away from oil and gas. For more than three decades, the federal government’s Western Economic Diversification program has worked to reduce the Prairies’ dependency on oil and gas and encourage an economy based on more stable industries.

Still, the region remains vulnerable to the volatility of oil and gas prices — a challenge that’s worsened with the pandemic. With the worldwide shutdown in March 2020, the price of oil plummeted to its lowest point in 18 years, placing Alberta and Saskatchewan — Canada’s largest oil producers — in a vulnerable situation.

While the future is uncertain for Canada’s fossil fuel industries, the pulse industry seems set to thrive.

Manitoba — where mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction make up only 2.5% of the economy — hasn’t suffered as big an economic blow as Alberta and Saskatchewan, where those sectors represent about 16% of GDP. Throughout the pandemic, Manitoba managed to keep its unemployment rates below the national average. Alan Freeman, a columnist at iPolitics who routinely writes on economics, said in an interview that this is because Manitoba’s economy is more diverse compared to Alberta and Saskatchewan, and not overly dependent on one resource.

While the future is uncertain for Canada’s fossil fuel industries, the pulse industry seems set to thrive. In its 2019 report, the FAO predicts that Canada’s pulse exports will grow at 3% a year, rising to 7 million metric tonnes of pulses annually by 2025.

A win for the environment, too

Proponents say that boosting the pulses industry is a winning move for the environment because pulses are less carbon intensive than other crops. “The government really needs to look at utilizing this industry as a tool towards helping Canada achieve its climate change goals,” says Greuel of PIC.

Conventional agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from livestock farming and the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. These fertilizers are created using the Haber process, which produces ammonia by extracting nitrogen from air. But this process comes at huge environmental costs: It accounts for 1–2% of the world’s energy consumption, and is responsible for 1.4% of all carbon emissions. In 2018, nitrogen fertilizers accounted for 23% of emissions from Canadian agriculture.

Growing pulses reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers.

Growing pulses, however, reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers and the Haber process. All legume plants have symbiotic relationships with microbes that fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing or even eliminating the need for fertilizers. If grown in rotation, pulses can leave the soil enriched for other crops and reduce their need for fertilizers, too.

A unique combination of environmental and economic circumstances, plus a shift in consumer habits, have presented the Prairie provinces with a unique opportunity. If they can leverage their strength in the production and exports of pulses, western Canada — and consequently, the country as a whole—could become a leader in the up-and-coming plant-based food industry, boosting the country’s post-pandemic economy in the process.

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