CEO, Protein Industries Canada
Canada’s cluster initiative has been fostering innovation across five broad sectors, from the deep sea to the digital cloud, but some of the most profound developments are destined for the dinner table. Protein Industries Canada is the plant-based food global innovation cluster.
It’s been an exciting few years for plant-based food, with many Canadians being inspired to expand their dietary horizons for the first time. Amid global food supply disruptions, climate crisis, population growth, and economic uncertainty, the need for innovation and sustainability in our nutritional milieu has never been clearer.
When Canada’s five Global Innovation Clusters — originally dubbed Innovation Superclusters Initiative — were created in 2018, the plant-based Protein Industries Cluster was an arguably idiosyncratic area of focus among broader clusters such as the Advanced Manufacturing Cluster and the Ocean Cluster. Four years on, however, the identification of plant-based protein as a critical target for Canadian innovation and economic growth seems downright prescient.
“The fundamentals that underpin the growth of the global plant-based food sector were certainly alive and well back in 2018, even if it wasn’t obvious to everyone,” says Bill Greuel, CEO of Protein Industries Canada, the not-for-profit administering the plant-based Protein Industries Cluster. “Since then, the impacts of climate change have become more evident, and our understanding of the fragility of our food system has become more prominent. Combine that with the major disruptions in global food supply chains from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, and the importance of this sector is more heightened than ever.”
Moving forward as one
Protein Industries Canada’s mission is centred on driving collaboration and innovation within the agriculture and food production sector to secure Canada’s place as a global leader in plant-based foods and co-products. Canada begins from a naturally advantageous position with a strong agricultural tech sector, a wealth of arable land, and crop diversity that’s the envy of the world.
Much of the hard work that the cluster has taken on involves bringing together the sector’s existing innovators to realize a completely vertical innovation ecosystem, creating jobs and stimulating both local and nationwide economic growth. “When we think about innovation in the food sector, we really have to think about it in terms of a value chain,” says Greuel. “Innovation starts with advanced crop breeding technologies and genomic research, and it continues all the way to the product that ends up on a consumer’s plate.”
Innovation starts with advanced crop breeding technologies and genomic research, and it continues all the way to the product that ends up on a consumer’s plate.
Re-imagining Canadian food crops
While some of the new research and development in Protein Industries Canada’s portfolio involves exciting new foodstuffs for the Canadian diet, Greuel emphasizes that there’s also plenty left to learn about the potential and opportunity inherent in food crops Canadian farmers have been growing for centuries.
Avena Foods is a Regina-based specialty milling company that creates a variety of traditional and innovative food ingredients from oats and pulses. Avena has partnered with Protein Industries Canada and a variety of other companies, from farmers to bakeries, to develop new tempered oat and pulse flours through a proprietary process that applies heat and humidity in a precisely controlled manner. The result is new flours from familiar ingredients with new properties and new food product possibilities.
“We wanted to learn more about what’s actually happening to the flours as we process them and what sort of improvements could we make to the processing of these products, as well as what sorts of food applications these flours might be suitable for,” explains Gord Flaten, CEO of Avena. “We recognized that there was a lot we didn’t know, and there was a huge opportunity to understand and then control the process. We’re a relatively small company, and this kind of R&D work is complex and expensive. We didn’t even have an R&D department before partnering with Protein Industries Canada. Their support allows companies like Avena to grow bigger and faster. That’s critical.”
As the initial five-year lifecycle of the supercluster initiative draws to a close, Protein Industries Canada points to success stories like Avena’s as proof that the cluster model has been a wager worth doubling down on. And, if it was the dark horse of the five Global Innovation Clusters conceived in 2018, the plant-based food sector has since shown itself to be the very soul of Canadian potential.