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Not just Cowtown Alberta and alternative protein

Calgary Economic Development and Western Economic Development Canada released an Agribusiness Market Study in September 2020 detailing prospects for growth in regional and global markets for the agribusiness sector in Calgary and southern Alberta. This article is one of a series of stories about the study. 

In the last several years, one of the most undeniable trends in agrifood has been the increased demand in non-animal or alternative proteins. And industry is working hard to keep up supply by deploying technology to make sure that those products hit the market. Right here in Calgary, the restaurant and food delivery industries reflect that demand not only with their menu items, but entire restaurant concepts too.

Alternative proteins come from many sources like plants and insects, but new technology is paving the way for more alternative sources such as microbes and even lab-grown meat through cellular agriculture.

Alternative proteins for alternative products

The reasons for alternative protein demand vary, from personal diet preferences and food intolerances, to those searching for more sustainable food sources. And while vegan and vegetarian diets are not new, the variety of non-animal products available on the market has exploded more recently. Consuming alternative proteins doesn’t mean eating crickets or living off bean curd as some might believe. Food technology has made it possible to take proteins from other sources and create products that consumers know and love – and sometimes, even mistake for the real deal.

Although many people are choosing to add more plant or alternative protein-based foods in their diets, they’re not willing to sacrifice the taste and texture of the original products. Gone are the days of questionable veggie burgers and rubbery imitation chicken. Today’s consumers want burgers that look like something straight off the barbecue. Coffee and tea drinkers want dairy alternatives that will blend nicely into their hot drink. Now, there’s more choice than ever on the shelves to satisfy these needs.

Alternative proteins are also being used to meet the demand in animal feed. Even though consumers are wanting more flexibility in their food choices, there is still a big market for meat and livestock that producers need to be able to keep up with. Where these producers are playing their part is using alternative feed sources for their livestock that are more financially sustainable and better for the environment.

Plant-based opportunities

At first glance, a local and global demand for alternative protein might seem like it would negatively impact the agrifood industry in Alberta, where beef has dominated for some time. But Alberta is well-suited to be a leader in the production of plant-based proteins in particular. Several of Alberta’s best-known crops are high in protein, such as canola, lentils, and beans. Take Rowland Farms for example, Western Canada’s largest organic producer of some of these crops, based close by in Taber.

Both industry and government recognize this massive opportunity for Canadian agriculture, especially for us here in the Prairies. Protein Industries Canada (PIC), a not-for-profit organization, was created to “unleash the potential of Canadian crops,” as one of the Government of Canada’s five superclusters  part of the Innovation Supercluster Initiative. In 2019, PIC selected Calgary-based Botaneco Inc. as one of its first funding recipients, which has now developed technology to derive proteins from oilseeds for use in food, animal feed, and even personal care products.

Mushrooms also continue to be a popular alternative protein for consumers. Ceres Solutions is an Alberta startup and Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) Rockies graduate that has been producing high quality gourmet mushrooms at its facility in Olds for some time now. It’s also working on a technology that takes spent grains – a by-product of beer brewing that would otherwise go into compost or the trash – and combines it with mushroom culture to create a livestock feed rich in protein.

The global opportunity

When it comes to alternative protein on the world stage, the demand is poised to increase, and quicker than ever before. Alberta’s agriculture industry can confidently take the lead in this growth. From its already budding agribusiness network, to its strong government and industry support, this province is set to become one of the primary sources of alternative protein in Canada and eventually, across the world.

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