Processing the future

Processing the Future

4 strong areas for growth in developing plant-based products

By Barb Wilkinson

It surprises many to find out food and beverage processing is the largest manufacturing sector in Alberta.

Provincial food-processing industries make up 23.2 per cent or $14.5-billion worth of manufactured goods, according to numbers from the provincial government.

“It’s not oil and gas, but it’s a pretty sizeable industry,” says Trevor Lewington, CEO for Lethbridge Economic Development and vice-chair of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta (PPAA).

The food and beverage area is also the biggest employer within the manufacturing sector, followed by fabricated metal product industries.

And the good news is that over the next few years we’re expecting to see large-scale processing plants developed in Alberta and the Prairies as growers and companies take advantage of increased global demand for plant-protein products.

“New products and new product development will drive a lot of activity in the next five years,” says Ken Gossen, executive director of the Food and Bio Processing branch of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. He oversees the Food Processing Development Centre and Incubator located in Leduc.

“In the past, the majority of our business was meat-protein related products, about 60 per cent of the total,” says Gossen.

“Meat is still very important but the trend but is certainly toward crop- and vegetable-based protein. We’re getting close to almost a 50-50 split.”

The Leduc development centre was founded in a bid to move beyond just supplying raw crop commodities for export from the province and to look at creating new jobs and food products for sale and export. It helps people over one to two years through the ideas stage to developing at the “bench top” level and on to market. Many of the companies they work with also spend three to five years with their incubator.

“We get people from all over the province,” says Gossen. “We’re helping the industry by investing in equipment to break down the plant.”

One of the centre’s newest acquisitions is a wet fractionation line that separates the plant into three parts – protein, starch and fibre.

“I can see a lot of work in starch, we’ll need to find new and innovative uses for it. Starch is a well-traded commodity now and it’s going to increase in the marketplace.”

Gossen also sees opportunity with bio-industrial applications of the three parts.

“Not everything will be food grade.”

In the eight years Darren Walkey, business director for the University of Alberta’s crop protein and cellulose program, has been working with the development and commercialization of functional and value-added ingredients he has seen significant growth with more investment and facilities starting up.

“However, Alberta, in terms of value-added processing, is behind where other provinces are right now,” says Walkey. “We’ve been overshadowed by oil and gas.”

Steps in the right direction include the newly formed PPAA and federal supercluster Protein Industries Canada (PIC) to help position the industry for stronger growth, he says.

Walkey sees four areas of opportunity, in particular:

  1. Food and beverage products that replace or supplement animal proteins, eggs and dairy;
  2. Development of plant-based plastics and packaging that is biodegradable;
  3. Nutritional snacks; and
  4. Products with applications in health and beauty.

“There is more awareness and research, and more consumer-support for products.”

Research at the U of A is even looking at plant proteins for use in fabrics, filtration, bio-composites and some electronic parts.

Hemp is at the top of the list in Alberta for future growth due to current investment levels and the variable uses of the crop, says Walkey.

Some of the roadblocks to greater levels of food and beverage processing, he says, include:

  1. Co-packing: There’s a void when it comes to packaging and labels. Alberta companies have to go to B.C., Manitoba, Saskatchewan or the west coast of the United States for help. “It’s a hindrance to growth if you have to go elsewhere and import back into the province.”
  2. Distribution: Moving the ingredients or products to various markets is a challenge. The majority of our existing infrastructure has been designed around moving large quantities of commodities, such as grains, oils, lumber and minerals. As the food-processing industry expands there will be an increasing need to improve distribution methods. For example, there is very little cold-chain capacity for those products requiring freezers or refrigeration in Alberta compared to other provinces.
  3. Access to markets: Right now there is political uncertainty surrounding access to the U.S. market and we’re just starting to make inroads to other areas like Europe and Asia.
  4. Processing plants: While there is expected to be several new plants opening up in Alberta and the Prairies within the next five years, all plans are focused on the yellow pea. “That will allow us to be closer to meeting global demand but the problem is the focus on pea protein doesn’t allow experimentation and development of other crops, such as the fava bean.”
  5. Long-term sustainability: The significant amount of water and energy used in wet fractionation can be an issue for those who care about the provenance of their purchases. It also restricts the locations for building processing plants. To increase long-term sustainability the processing industry is investing in developing less resource dependent processing methods that will still enable the production of pure and consistent quality protein, starch and fibre ingredients.

Walkey, however, points to exciting success stories already in Alberta, such as Radient Technologies and its extraction process, Botaneco and its purified extracts for personal-care products, Ceapro with its processing of oats as functional ingredients for personal care and cosmetic products, and W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions with its processing facilities in Bashaw and Bowden.

The close location of NAIT, the Leduc processing centre and the University of Alberta makes for a strong food cluster to grow in the Edmonton area, but in general southern Alberta is ahead of the game with their focus on commercialization, says Walkey.

That southern success is connected to the region’s historically strong agricultural presence, says Lewington.

“We have the raw materials, we just need to look to continue to add value.”

Without as strong a presence in the province’s volatile oil and gas industry the southern part of the province has had to turn to a more diversified economy with incremental growth and expansion.

“The canola processing industry was born here and Richardson Oilseed is going through an expansion. All the big players are here: PepsiCo, McCain, Cavendish, Maple Leaf,” says Lewington.

“There’s also a lot of interesting niche players, and we want to see them expand and grow.”

The City of Lethbridge has taken action to attract commercial opportunities for the crops grown in the area, such as deliberately designing an industrial park so that the right land and utilities are ready for agri-food companies. Since processing operations require more water you need over-sized water and sewer capabilities.

“You spend more on initial infrastructure but when a company is ready to expand they don’t want to have to wait a couple of years to get going.”

There’s also a lot of knowledge and expertise to tap through the University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge Community College, and the federal government’s Agriculture and Agri-Food Research and Development Centre.

“Plant-based protein is certainly of interest to us,” says Lewington. “The majority of yellow peas in the province are grown here and we don’t want to send them away for processing. We think there’s a real play for a value-added opportunity here.”

He sees his expanded role with PPAA as an important one in finding ways to support companies across Alberta interested in new food-processing and food products.

“It’s really about solving problems and working with them to solve issues. We’re here to help, how can we best do that?”


Barb Wilkinson, a former deputy editor of the Edmonton Journal, is a freelance writer and editor.

Posted October 17, 2018


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