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Editor’s Column: Don’t get too comfortable

Farmers always like to be polite and support each other, but let’s be honest, here. It’s been easy for crop producers to get a little smug and complacent when we consider what’s happening in the meat aisle at the Co-op. There are a lot more plant-based meat “replacements” than there used to be.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor from Dalhousie University who specializes in food trends and logistics, spoke about the increase in plant-based products at CropSphere in Saskatoon in January. Last year at Dalhousie, he said, researchers thought about 10 million people would be eating less meat by 2025. With the success of the new not-meat products on the market right now, they’ve revised this. Now they think about 16 million Canadians will be eating less meat by 2025. As Charlebois pointed out, that’s almost half of Canadians.

In 2019, he said, meat sales in Canada dropped by $165 million. Tofu sales were up 25 per cent.

These numbers, of course, are relative. In a September 2019 report, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada reported that retail sales of beef in Canada in 2018 totalled US$5.4 billion. That same paper figured sales of soy-based meat substitutes, including tofu, at US$102 million — less than only two per cent of the value of the beef sales.

That ratio is probably about right. Charlebois also told the audience that only about 1.5 or 1.6 per cent of the Canadian population are vegans, that is, people who aren’t eating any animal-based products, even eggs or milk.

But, even if the sector is still small, it’s certainly growing, and nobody with a cow in a pasture should get too comfortable.

Pulse proteins go big?

Pulse proteins are the obvious replacements for meat, and also big players in the food market on their own merit. Soybeans, lentils, chickpeas — all of these products are reaching more markets in more ways, from “burgers” to “potato chips.”

However, even Murad Al-Katib, CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients, one of the world’s largest lentil companies, admitted on a CropSphere panel that sometimes snack products made from lentils tend to taste kind of like, well, lentils.

A lentily taste is a great thing in a nice soup, but maybe not so fantasic if you’re in the mood for a delicious afternoon snack with a little extra protein.

Another hurdle between pulse growers and the snack market, Al-Katib pointed out, is the high price. “We will never achieve large-scale adoption until a bag of pulse-based snacks is comparable in price to a bag of Lays.”

But that’s not the end

So that brings it back to the crops sector. If people are going to eat soy-based products, we’re going to need more soybeans. Lentil chips? You’re going to need more lentils. Crop growers are fine, right?

Even the reports of lab-based meat are still going to need some plant-based products to use as raw products, right?

Not so fast.

Solar Foods Ltd. is a company in Finland that’s making flour in the lab.

Well, not what we’d think of as flour, but something that it’s saying tastes a bit like flour, and is “100 times more climate friendly than meat and 10 times better than plants.”

This company’s marketing material says it has a “carbon-neutral solution for protein production that’s free from the limits of agriculture.”

This flour-like product, Solein, is made from carbon dioxide, air, and electricity (solar power) and some living microbes. The microbes perform a type of fermentation process. The resulting product is dried into a powder that’s 50 per cent protein. The powder is versatile enough, they say, to fit into any kind of diet.

Solein isn’t available commercially yet, but the company expects to have a product for sale by 2021.

The world has reached a sad state of affairs when a company proudly advertises on its website that it’s not associated with agriculture. It’s one thing to ask a few questions about how we use herbicides, and quite another to say, “I’ll just make my own flour, here in the garage thanks.”

Cow or no cow, none of us should get too comfortable.

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