In May 2019, Beyond Meat Inc. proved that making plant-based proteins is a billion-dollar business.
The U.S.-based company went public and listed its shares at $25 each on the Nasdaq, raising $240 million at a valuation of nearly $1.5 billion. Plant proteins are now big business and their rise to prominence has made plant-based protein options common on restaurant menus – and Alberta’s Rowland Farms saw this trend coming.
Rowland Farms has about 40,000 irrigated and dryland acres across the sprawling prairies about 275 kilometres south of Calgary. The company is Western Canada’s largest organic producer and has been in the organic food business since 1984. Four or five years ago, Rowland Farms started to see an increasing interest in crops like peas, pulses, beans, chickpeas and even hemp.
“The growth in alternative protein products is very, very strong and will likely be strong for a while,” says Keith Jones, general manager and CFO of Rowland Farms. “That’s one of the reasons we got involved fairly early on in Protein Industries Canada, because we could see our customers demanding more alternative plant proteins.”
Protein Industries Canada (PIC) is a group of businesses, post-secondary institutions and non-profits working together to make Canada a world leader in the plant protein market. The non-profit organization was awarded $153 million from the federal government in November 2018 through its Innovation Superclusters Initiative – a program designed to create innovation hotbeds in a handful of select sectors with strategic investments that will provide a long-term competitive advantage, global brand recognition, and an outsized positive impact on job creation and economic growth.
PIC announced its first funded project in June 2019. Calgary-based Botaneco Inc., which formed in 2014 to commercialize a new oilseed processing technique, will receive a total of $8 million to help commercialize its technology that will yield a variety of new oil and protein products from crops such as canola and hemp. PIC matched industry funding of $4 million, including financial investment from Rowland Farms.
“From an investing perspective,” says Rowland Farms’ Jones, “I think plant protein has some legs to it. Our expectation is the protein market will grow to be about double of the current organic market penetration. That’s a lot of growth opportunity. Anytime there’s a consumer that opens their wallet or purse looking for an alternative, we want to make sure Western Canada is the one to satisfy that market demand.”
It’s a market that is expected to grow in tandem with global population numbers. PIC estimates that by 2050, global food demand will rise by 70 percent.
“It’s just not possible to meet that growing demand with animals entirely, so there’s a huge opportunity to feed the world and provide the protein that’s required in plant-based proteins,” says Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge, an organization supporting Alberta’s third largest city that sits in the midst of fertile farmland about 225 kilometres south of Calgary.
Lewington is also a board member of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta (PPAA). The alliance is a province-wide initiative to connect producers, processors, investors, retailers, universities and colleges, and the government to work on projects together. The PPAA’s goal is similar to PIC’s goal to develop more processing capabilities in the province and add value to the raw commodities produced by the more than 15,000 crop farmers in the province.
“There’s all kinds of food processing that happens here in Alberta,” says Lewington, “but in terms of plant protein, we export the raw commodity to another country – in particular, China – where it’s processed. Then we pay more to bring the finished product back.”
Through the work of PIC and PPAA, Alberta has the opportunity to change the flow of plant protein production and become a global player in the plant protein market.
“Part of the reason that the federal government has invested in this, and part of the reason I think there’s so much energy and attention, is that Canada — Alberta specifically — really has the opportunity to dominate in this category globally,” says Lewington. “Canada is well- respected and well-positioned for the most part. We’ve got all the right ingredients to dominate in this space; Canada could be a global leader.”