Pulses: The Next Generation

Posted on April 17, 2015

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by Noelle Chorney

Saskatchewan grows 96% of Canada’s lentils, 90% of its chickpeas, and 70% of its peas, and is projected to produce three million metric tons of lentils in 2015. But while we have tapped many of the traditional export pulse markets, there is great potential to expand into the North American food industry.

“Canada has really become the dominant production and export origin for pulses, lentils in particular,” says Omer Al-Katib, Director of Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations at AGT Foods “The pulse industry has grown dramatically, in parallel with global markets.”

“These are core consumption items in many world populations,” says Al-Katib. Turkey and India are the top lentil importers.

The Saskatchewan research cluster has been a boon to the industry. “The partnership between industry, government and research in the pulse industry in Saskatchewan is a model for the world,” says Al-Katib. “The University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers and Pulse Canada have been working together to create new varieties. These efforts have created a multi-billion dollar industry that exports to over 100 countries. Virtually every country in the world receives Saskatchewan pulse products in some shape or form.”

The industry gets firm support from the provincial and federal governments. “We have strong and knowledgeable agriculture ministers at both the Federal and Provincial level,” says Al-Katib. “Both levels of government are very friendly toward the pulse industry.”

At the federal level, the government is also paying close attention to the players in the pulse industry. Murad Al-Katib, President and CEO of AGT, is one of the advisors on the government’s review of the Canada Transportation Act, which may help to improve the one limiting factor on Saskatchewan pulse exports—the ability to get the grain to port.

Varietal breeding research has been critical to farmers embracing pulses. Through the varietal research program, practical improvements, such as disease resistance and taller plants, have made a real difference.

Pulses are a key component in Saskatchewan’s agronomic approach, involving a three-year rotation of grains, pulses and oilseeds. “Pulses, particularly lentils, are among the top five earners for farmers. They get nitrogen fixing benefits from the pulse rotation, but they get money in their jeans as well,” says Al-Katib.

“Overall the pulse industry in Canada is growing and changing simultaneously,” says Al-Katib. “The research is a big component of that.”

New varieties are being introduced regularly. Two recent favourites are ‘KR-1’, an extra bold-sized red lentil that is as large as a green lentil, and ‘Queen Green’ lentil, which is green on the outside and inside. It has potential as a protein additive, but also can be used as a natural green colouring, and is attractive to gourmet European markets.

The faba bean program is showing remarkable potential. “Faba beans have double the nitrogen fixing properties, from a rotational standpoint. They also have naturally higher protein values. They could be an excellent source of high protein flour products.”

While pulses are an easy sell to traditional markets, there is also growing demand in North America. AGT’s food research laboratory is exploring applications for pulse ingredients, using their starch, protein and fibre in everyday food products. Al-Katib says, “North Americans aren’t going to eat pulses in the traditional manner. But they are going to increase their pulse consumption by eating everyday processed foods.”

North American food companies are looking to pulses to both improve nutrition in their food products and as part of their environmental initiatives. “As a source of protein, the environmental impact of lentils is extremely small,” says Al-Katib. “One pound of protein from pulses takes 43 gallons of water, compared to 1900 gallons of water to produce the same amount of protein from beef.”

Pulse production in Saskatchewan is increasing every year, and the industry is sustainable. “Production at these levels is important for growers, and important for the Canadian economy. Demand is not going anywhere. The world has embraced quality pulse products from Canada. Canada is the premiere origin for supply of lentils to global markets.”

With the United Nations estimating a 30 percent global population increase by 2050, Al-Katib is confident that “pulses are the sustainable source of protein that will help meet global food requirements.”