Time for value-added agriculture processing in Saskatchewan

Posted on July 06, 2020

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Years of investment in agriculture research and development has made Saskatchewan a global leader in crop production. Traditionally, the province has exported cereals, oilseeds, pulses and livestock to be processed elsewhere and then shipped back to us as food products. But that is changing. Since 2012, the value-added agriculture industry in Saskatchewan increased by 50 per cent, with revenue climbing from $3.5 billion to $5.2 billion in 2018. 

Karen Churchill, Ag-West Bio’s president and CEO, says “We are so good at growing crops; the next logical step is to process them here as well. This is one of the most positive environments for value-added products that we’ve ever seen. We have an amazing hub of expertise that stretches from the science community, educational institutions and manufacturing support, to innovative businesses with great ideas.” 

In its Plan for 2020-21 the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture committed to supporting the value-added sector to further bolster the growth we are already seeing. Godwin Pon, Director of the Ministry’s Value-Added Unit, says Saskatchewan’s advantage lies in our proximity to high quality, abundant ingredients. He points out that we have safe and relatively low-cost agricultural production, a well-respected science cluster, a supportive business environment and a good international reputation. “A strong food processing industry allows Saskatchewan to take advantage of the opportunities that come with an increasing demand for food, feed, fuel and fibre and to grow our domestic and international markets.” 

To meet the opportunities available in the value-added processing sector, government, industry, research and education organizations are collaborating to improve our research and development capabilities, develop funding resources and get them to the businesses who need them, and bolster the supportive infrastructure needed to fill the gaps and meet our potential. 

Research and Product Development 
The University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources contributes skilled graduates as well as research in all areas of food production. Bob Tyler, Head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science and Professor in the Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences, says, “AgBio’s faculty members, including several research chairs, work on plant protein, lipids and carbohydrates, meat science, food safety and quality assurance. Our plant breeders are also focused on value-added traits, including proteins, protein quality and anti-nutritionals.” 

Tyler says the College produces graduates that industry and government wants, and many of them go on to work in Saskatchewan’s food production industry. “Food science is a growing realm and our grads have fundamental skills in marketing, quality assurance, food safety and ingredient functionality.”

Some of those grads end up at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (also known as the Food Centre) and its new facility, the Agri-Food Innovation Centre. Shannon Hood-Niefer, VP Innovation and Technology at the Centre, says, “We offer product and process development, food safety training, ingredient innovation support and manufacturing facilities that allow companies to develop and refine their own products, scale them up and get them to market. Our clientele ranges from start-ups and small enterprises to large multi-nationals and every size in between.” 

Value-Added Funding Programs and Initiatives 
With the federal and provincial governments both prioritizing value-added food production, government officials are working on behalf of food companies in the province on international trade missions, investing in research to develop new uses for raw ingredients, identifying investment opportunities and offering programs and services to support agri-business. 

Under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), a five-year funding agreement between the federal government and the provinces, Saskatchewan has the following programs to support the value-added industry: 

  • Product2Market helps grow the value-added sector by providing support to small-and-medium sized agri-businesses in everything from product development through to marketing activities. 
  • Saskatchewan Lean Improvements in Manufacturing (SLIM) provides funding to agri-business and infrastructure projects that improve productivity and efficiency. 
  • Food Safety for Processors Program helps Saskatchewan production facilities achieve food safety requirements that will increase their competitiveness, productivity, and profitability. 

Abdul Jalil, Assistant Deputy Minister at Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD), says the Prairie Provinces have opportunity and potential to increase their capacity to add value to the food crops that we grow. That is why the Government of Canada has invested in Protein Industries Canada (PIC), and other federal government departments, including Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (AAFC), National Research Council (NRC) and WD, are working together to complement those investments. 

“In 2019-20, WD approved 12 Saskatchewan projects through its core and non-core programs to support the province’s value-added sector. It invested $14.87 million, which leveraged an additional $26.13 million in funding,” says Jalil.

PIC drives collaboration between industry trailblazers to help realize Canada’s agri-food potential. CEO Bill Greuel says, “We invest in people and ideas, help build capacity and promote a new approach to economic growth in Canada through enhanced collaboration between private sector companies, helping to invest more in innovation in Canada and working to build capacity within the sector.” 

Greuel believes Saskatchewan will favour very well with PIC investment. He notes that Saskatchewan has great R&D capacity with the NRC, Global Institute for Food Security, the Food Centre and USask. “We also have some great anchor firms that are developing projects related to novel process technologies, and showing willingness to collaborate beyond Saskatchewan’s borders,” says Greuel. “We don’t have all the expertise in Saskatchewan but with our endowment of natural capital, such as land, rainfed agriculture, sustainable crop production and innovative producers, we have so much opportunity. We have everything we need to be a leader in manufacturing ingredients.” 

Filling the Gaps 
Saskatchewan’s relatively small population and land-locked location complicates the process of getting value-added products to global markets. “We have some big ecosystem challenges,” says Churchill, “but we’ve seen an unprecedented willingness of multiple departments and agencies to work together to identify any gaps and take steps to alleviate them.” 

The Saskatchewan Government is oriented to supporting future opportunities. “We are starting to see some convergence between the value-added sector and agri-technology. New programming and support may be needed to address this emerging sector,” says Pon. 

In the current pandemic situation, the environment has become unexpectedly complex. “With the world grappling to fight COVID-19 and governments focused on keeping Canadians safe and the economy positioned for a rebound, we may face some challenges, which I am sure we can overcome,” says Jalil. 

“The demand for food products is expected to remain strong, it will create more growth opportunities for agriculture value-added businesses in Western Canada. We need to keep businesses and workers afloat during this period.” Jalil says WD’s Regional Relief and Recovery Fund was put in place to help companies, organizations and communities affected by economic challenges associated with COVID-19. 

Churchill believes Ag-West Bio has a unique position as a catalyst, connector, and network supporter, and can foster conversations between the sectors, take a close look at the problems and develop ideas to overcome them. “There are many moving parts; bringing them together is where we can really shine. We also have the ability to support entrepreneurs who have great ideas but need the advice, training, connections or financial support that we can offer.” 

“Saskatchewan entrepreneurs are innovative, and they are willing to work together,” says Churchill. “We set aside competitiveness in our businesses to create something better. We have the spirit to create something bigger than we can as individuals.”

 

Photo: Researcher Supratim Ghosh (right) with Maja Primozic, a master’s student involved in a nanoemulsion project at the University of Saskatchewan. (Credit:USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources).