Playing the Field

If you travel the highways through Alberta’s vast farmland in the summer, you can easily pick out expanses of tawny wheat and bright yellow canola — but could you identify fields of faba beans and lupin?

Alberta’s staple crops are getting a run for their money from these and other newcomer plants, thanks to increasing global demands for plant proteins. The province’s agriculture sector has responded to this demand with essential economic development strategies and innovative new technologies with the goal of exposing the farming industry to more international markets.

“The evolution from field to market, based on consumer demand, is accelerating. Even traditional ‘grow-what-you-know’ farmers are reaching out to researchers and crop specialists to see how they can get better yields, grow higher quality grain and diversify into other kinds of crops,” says Natalie Gibson, principal of InnoVisions and Associates, an economic development consultancy based in Airdrie, located just outside of Calgary. “We’re seeing more variety of specialty crops in the pulse sector and innovations in everything from radishes that have a red swirl to micro-greens farmed in vertical containers with enhanced vitamins and minerals.”

Gibson grew up in a farming family and says the industry is adapting more rapidly than ever to meet changing consumer preferences. Demand for plant protein crops including beans, hempseed, flaxseed, lentils and chickpeas have skyrocketed. Gibson cites Arjazon Seed Trading in Fort McLeod as an example of a company shifting to meet market conditions. The company recently expanded plant protein processing in response to international demand. “Alberta has the soil quality, the land, the heat units and the irrigation systems that support diverse crops. That’s why we’re seeing more and more interest, especially from the Asian market,” she says.

One relative newcomer to Alberta’s plant protein scene is lupin, a pulse crop that debuted here in 2018. Lupin has 30–40 per cent protein, 35 per cent fibre, and much less starch than peas. A team from the Alberta government department of agriculture had been developing the crop for more than 15 years. Koralta-Agri invested in the crop, following interest from Korean feed companies — whose Australian supply was withered by drought.

“I said ‘Hey, I have the guts to take some risks.’ So that’s how we started,” recalls Koralta President and CEO Se Hong Park. His company soon spun off Lupin Platform Inc. to develop a vertically integrated lupin ecosystem in Canada. “The plant-based food market has more than tripled in the last few years,” says CEO of Lupin Platform Inc., Tristan Choi. “With more research and prototyping of vegan food development, we’re getting more confident that we can create marketable products using lupin ingredients targeting vegan consumers.”

Farmers grew 500 acres of lupin this year near Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city. Choi hopes that that will at least double next year, and yield at least 60,000 tonnes by 2025. “After countless optimization trials, we are now able to customize the characteristics of the lupin protein to meet the requests of food manufacturers,” Choi says. “You can turn it into a keto-friendly or a gluten-free baking mix. We are testing a plant-based dairy alternative beverage and yogurt formulation, and are finding that lupin protein is ideal for frozen desserts and as an egg or fish alternative. In Europe, lupin oil is used in pharmaceuticals and clinical formulations. That is the direction we see for lupin grown in Canada, adding layers of value-added processing.”

Lupin’s economic and environmental potential is also being recognized by the Federal Government where the “Creating lupin ecosystem in Canada from the Seed to Fork” project has been endorsed by Protein Industries Canada and National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to accelerate lupin varietal research and development of effective protein extraction method using lupin.

Choi and Park see lupin as a stepping stone to more diversified agriculture in Alberta. Koralta is now investigating the viability of other unconventional crops in Alberta — such as adzuki beans and perilla seed, an oilseed in high demand in parts of Asia and Europe that commands double or triple the price of conventional oilseeds like canola. Another potential crop is rice, which Koralta hopes to develop early maturity cultivars that use less water.

Choi, Park and Gibson agree that innovation will continue to drive the economic competitiveness of Alberta’s agriculture industry, whether it comes from crop management practices, seed and growth technologies, or value-added processing and research and development.

“What’s exciting to me,” adds Gibson, “is to see the post-secondary institutions coming alongside farmers and ranchers looking for ways to drive innovation through research, which will support food supply sustainability and shorten supply chains right now, and in the long term.”