Tapping the potential of Protein Industries Canada (PIC)

Posted on June 18, 2018

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The Western Canadian agricultural industry scored a major coup with the Government of Canada’s award of the Protein Industries Canada (PIC) supercluster earlier this year. 

While organizational structure, policies and program development is still underway, and funding agreements are still being settled, all the major players – from growers to processors to distributors – see great potential in this new development. 

“The goal of PIC is to take crops and break them into their component parts to create better value in food and feed,” says Ag-West Bio President and CEO Wilf Keller. “We are creating an innovation ecosystem that is a mix of large, medium and small institutions, working with universities, supported by government, and connected to producer associations to create networking opportunities and a rich environment for expanding existing companies, growing new companies, and attracting outside companies to our region.” 

The supercluster builds on existing infrastructure, production and research capacity in the Prairie Provinces, and addresses the federal government’s interest in increasing the scope of Canadian agriculture. “With this program, we can respond to the Barton Report’s challenge to expand the economic value of the agriculture industry by 50 per cent,” says Keller, referring to a report entitled “Unleashing the Growth Potential of Key Sectors,” written by Dominic Barton for the Ministry of Finance’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth. 

While PIC funding covers only the next five years, Ron Styles, PIC acting president, says the creation of that ecosystem will have a lasting benefit: “It’s the network – companies doing research, farmers and producers, processors and manufacturers, sales and marketing, all working together – that will be valuable in the long-term.” 

The PIC proposal covered four pillars: create, produce, process and sell. “We will have a line of funding for germplasm and improvement to actual seeds, production improvements such as data analytics and artificial intelligence, improving agricultural processing of crop proteins, beginning with pulses and canola but eventually moving to other crops, as well as a marketing and sales component,” says Styles. 

“A large part of the marketing will be working with the perception of the Canadian brand overseas. We have a reputation for high quality products, a solid intellectual property (IP) system, traceability, social justice, and political stability. We have a regional perspective in Canada, but other countries don’t think of us as provinces or regions.” Peter Phillips, professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, adds, “We need to be sophisticated. We need to look like a credible venture beyond our catchment area. It will be a challenge to truly become the hub. We will really need to become the international leaders, the place people come to learn more. There are real opportunities. And the biggest challenge will be to make strategic decisions that have a real impact.”

“If we don’t capitalize on this opportunity, other countries will. No one can grow the quality and quantity of these crops, but they’ll import our crops and do the processing themselves. It’s time for us to strengthen that value chain and get all the links working together,” says Styles. 

To become a world leader in the plant protein industry, sustainability is a key consideration. Dan Prefontaine, president of the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre), identifies the importance of using all parts of protein crops, including co-products such as hulls or starches. 

“We need to change the value of the product through more value-added processing. The solution may be food-related, but it may also be found in other applications. We work in the food industry, but we will also be working with a wider group of industries to make sure this is sustainable over the long term,” says Prefontaine. 

Part of the sustainability of the project includes developing the human resources this expansion will require. Styles believes it will also entail changing attitudes about what it means to be in the agricultural industry, from a skills perspective. “We’re moving into the realm of digital processing systems and artificial intelligence. You need a different set of skills than conventional farming,” he says. 

University programs across the Prairies will be the source of many of those future workers, as well as research projects related to PIC. Bob Tyler, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, sees great potential in PIC’s merging of industry needs and public-sector research.

“Public sector research often suffers from a disconnect from industry, but in this case, we will be directly connected to industry needs and connect incoming grad students with industry-relevant research projects. We’re building on a strong existing research program and strong support systems with the combination of the Global Institute for Food Security, Global Institute for Water Security, POS Bio-Sciences, the Food Centre, and analytic capabilities at the Canadian Light Source. This is a good place to have a nucleus of activity.” 

PIC has also worked with several venture capitalists to provide $150 million in funding for small- to medium-sized businesses interested in building a higher value protein and co-products industry. “Prior to PIC funding, we could prepare pea protein as large volume, lower-value, base ingredient, but now we will be able to create higher-value specialty proteins with unique applications. A small entrepreneur or SME will have an opportunity to develop high-value protein fractions that are economically viable at lower production volumes, and have access to the market,” says Rick Green, VP Technology at POS Bio-Sciences. 

PIC is a pan-prairie initiative, and there is great potential to tap into all the knowledge at institutes, food centres and universities across the Prairies, and beyond. “We’ve always known about the existence of partnership potential in Minnesota, and research happening at [the Universities of] Guelph, Laval, McGill and UBC. We didn’t have the funds to act on them, but we do now,” says Tyler. 

PIC’s current board represents its commitment to a pan-prairie approach, as well as acting as a hub whose spokes connect even further. Directors come from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, with three more spots to fill. While the board is being appointed now, the plan is to have a membership structure that will elect future board members once PIC is up and running. 

Frank Hart, interim PIC Chair acknowledges the tight timing: “We need to be functioning by fall of this year, because we expect the funding to begin to come by the end of summer. The development of a contribution agreement is underway with the federal government right now.” 

Next steps involve organizing a series of programs to engage industry on the focus of the supercluster. “We’re going to work with industry over the summer to figure out the problems we need to solve. In the fall we will host a symposium where we’ll roll out what the organization will be doing. We already have an inventory of projects that need to be adjudicated,” says Hart. 

This is only the beginning of a program that needs to be both nimble and strategic in demonstrating value over a short time period. But the enthusiasm is unwavering. “There is so much potential to expand our ingredient processing industry, which will increase our ability for food production. This funding is going to kickstart it,” says Green. 

“PIC will transform how we think about agriculture innovation across the Prairies,” says Keller.