Unleashing the Potential of Canadian Crops: Protein Industries Canada


Frank Hart

It’s a measure of the evolution of agriculture in Canada that the industry’s supercluster does not contain the words “agriculture” or “farming” in its title. Protein Industries Canada, as CEO Frank Hart writes, will consolidate and harness the technological innovation that is already revolutionizing agriculture to take Canada to the next level of global competitiveness. 

Protein Industries Canada (PIC) is an industry-led supercluster comprised of leading Canadian agriculture technology corporations, food and food ingredient manufacturers, agriculture and food service companies, economic development agencies, and highly experienced academic and financial institutions. This supercluster is unique in its focus to capitalize on Canada’s world- class strengths in agricultural and food technology to advance economic growth through innovation in the area of plant-based proteins and co-products. 

The global population is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. An increasingly affluent global middle class (approximately three billion people worldwide in 2015) is seeking higher quality foods. Global middle class consumption is growing at 4 per cent annually in real terms and creating an increased demand for plant-based protein. As an existing leader in agriculture and food processing, Canada has an opportunity to lead this new growth cycle and technology era by securing our position and reputation as a pioneer in agricultural technology development and implementation. 

The vision of PIC is “to position Canada globally as a leading source of high-quality plant protein and plant-based co-products, while substantially contributing to Canada’s economic growth and international trade balance.” The mission is “to mobilize Canada’s ag/food innovation to collaborate in support of industry driven market priorities and needs.” 

In order to achieve our Vision, PIC intends to: 

• Build a shared competitive advantage that will attract cutting-edge research, investment and talent by addressing gaps, aligning strengths, enhancing attributes, and positioning it as a world-leading innovation hub; 

• Increase business expenditures on R&D and advance a range of business-led innovation and technology leadership activities that will address protein sector challenges, and boost productivity, performance and competitiveness for Canada’s agri-food sector;

• Generate new companies and commercialize new products, processes and services that position firms to scale, integrating into global value chains, transitioning to high-value activities and becoming a global market leader in plant-based protein and co-products; and

• Foster a critical mass of growth-oriented firms and bolster collaborations between private, academic and public-sector organizations pursuing private-sector led innovation and commercial opportunities to enhance the PIC’s pool of resources, capabilities and knowledge. PIC’s proposed value chain approach of enhancing production and processing innovation, improving export and market development, and scaling the ag business sector to compete on the world stage is designed grow the Canadian economy, create jobs, and reduce our carbon footprint through increased carbon sequestration. Canadian regenerative agricultural production technology can lead the world.

The PIC proposal is built aroundfour fundamental pillars, (1) creation of high-quality protein germplasm, (2) smart production, (3) novel process technology and product development, and (4) company support, marketing and commercialization. These four pillars will each have a separate program to focus resources together with funding for ecosystem development and technical training. 

A key to this supercluster proposal is the application of new technology in genomics, phenotyping, production, processing, artificial intelligence, data management, and education to drive forward innovation and catalyze new industry growth initially related to protein and co-products and growing as the cluster expands. Our focus will be on fostering novel approaches to processing existing major acreage crops (canola, pulses and wheat) as well as creating fractions with increased commercial value and utility for both the human food and animal feed markets. A second phase of PIC projects will be directed to smaller acreage crops with significant growth potential including hemp, quinoa, flax, oats, and others. The new processing technologies will provide valuable starches, flours, carbohydrates and compounds for biopolymers, textiles, industrial oils, functional foods, animal feeds, medicines and personal care products. The PIC cluster intends to build on established local strengths in crop production, application of emerging digital/precision crop production technologies and private and public seed processing and food/feed formulation research to increase value-added co-product production with concomitant increases in exports, jobs and revenue. 

Finally, new international markets are growing with demand for new plant protein supplies which must be addressed through value-added processing. Canada has an established international brand for quality ingredients which will be enhanced by providing new ingredient products for new markets. The PIC cluster aims to have all of the necessary components to participate in these new markets. ISED investment will allow PIC, its members and partners to accelerate the process of innovation and create new linkages leading to collaborations. The PIC cluster is geographically centered in the three Prairie Provinces but will have nodes and partnerships throughout Canada. Western Canada is the center of canola, pulse, cereal and specialty crop production (hemp, flax, sunflower, mustard, quinoa, etc.) and has developed associated processing industries and transportation infrastructure. As an example, the scale and know-how of Canadian canola and pulse crop production cannot be duplicated in other countries. However, an agriculture-based cluster cannot be as physically concentrated as other types of clusters because of the nature of agricultural production and research. But many of the PIC members have facilities centered near Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Winnipeg. 

The importance of the type of linkages that PIC will facilitate has long been stressed by proponents of successful clusters. For a knowledge-based cluster, the interaction between industry and academia is vital. Industry requires access to the research results, and academia needs access to a powerful industrial customer base. As technological development is at the core of competitive advantage, an important aspect of PIC is to create an environment conducive to joint development of new technologies, creating stronger science bases and commercial deployment. 

PIC also hopes to foster the development of start-up or emerging companies that may be physically located in proximity to shared facilities or services. Successful clusters are also well-funded and able to support emerging firms through accessing funds, matching investment, and in some instances, offering venture funds to assist companies. Companies that are developing new innovations, and novel plant proteins and co-products will require access to financial capital and expertise to pursue scaled-up commercial opportunities. PIC is also working with a series of companies to create linkages between its members and a $150 million venture capital fund operated by experienced financial operators. PIC’s Western Canadian cluster is also ideally situated to export Canadians goods to market, thereby enhancing Canadian export growth and associated economic impacts. With Port Alberta, the Calgary Region Inland Port, the Global Transportation Hub, and Centre Port, four of Canada’s nine Foreign Trade Zone points are located in the heart of the major canola, pulse, hemp, and oat growing areas in Canada. As such, these regions are perfectly suited for the attraction and retention of import/export trading companies and processors looking to access national, North American, and overseas global markets. 

Another key aspect of the cluster will be a focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence as important enablement technologies. Intelligent technologies are changing and disrupting every sector of the economy faster than we can keep up using traditional methods. The supercluster program and this investment in innovation is exactly what is needed to apply these technologies for the success and expansion of the agriculture sector and the entire economy. As part of this focus, PIC will be partnering with colleges and universities to help shape curriculum that matches the needs of industry. These new essential skills won’t just help the agriculture industry today; they will be demanded by jobs that are yet to be created and are transferable to other sectors and other industries. 

As we proceed in set up our entity, we are mindful that our supercluster will be the most effective, most impactful and have the greatest success if we include, learn from and make space for a diverse range of people and experiences. We are working to insure the inclusion of women, Indigenous people and underrepresented groups, at every critical juncture of the implementation process: at the board level, in project funding and in the general cluster-building activities of PIC. 

For the last 150 years, Canada has been known as a leader in agriculture. We produce some of the world’s safest, high quality food. For the next 150 years, we have an opportunity to continue and grow our legacy as a leader in agricultural innovation. The Prairies are the heart of Canadian agriculture and well positioned to be the geographic genesis of this innovation.  


Frank Hart is chair of Protein Industries Canada.