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Pulse markets beating strong

Pandemic turns spotlight on plant protein sources

UPDATED: Jan. 21, 2021: Markets for pulse crops in Canada and the United States should generally remain favourable over most of 2021 and even for several years beyond, says the head of the largest U.S. pulse crop processor.

Jeff Van Pevenage.
photo: Supplied

Jeff Van Pevenage, president and CEO of Columbia Grain International headquartered in Portland, Oregon, acknowledges while the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an enormous human and economic toll on the world, it has also raised greater awareness of the role plant-based protein can play in North American diets.

Consumer demand for pulses remained strong throughout 2020, says Van Pevenage, and he doesn’t expect any slowdown in the coming year. “I first noticed it myself in the early months of the pandemic,” he says. “I was in a local Safeway grocery store and I noticed in the canned foods section all the pulse shelves were empty. I talked to the store manager and he said they couldn’t meet the demand for peas, beans and lentils.”

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He says early in the pandemic, part of the demand might have related to panic buying as consumers stocked up on protein, but as the months passed he believes consumers began to appreciate peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils as another protein source, as well as their long shelf life and ease of use.

“People are cooking more meals at home, perhaps looking for something different than ‘another hamburger night’ and they are using more pulses in meal planning,” he says.

Increased demand

He points to U.S. statistics that show the 12 months between September 2019 and 2020, the sale of canned pulses increased by 34 per cent in volume and 38 per cent in sales dollars, while sale of dry package pulses increased by 25 per cent in volume and 27 per cent in value. By comparison, over the same period, demand for pork products increased by 14 per cent.

Why it matters: Consumer demand for pulses should remain strong in 2021, which could spell opportunity for Canadian producers.

While Columbia Grain has been a processor and exporter of bulk commodities over the past 40 years, it is venturing into the world of retail products in 2021. Now with a packaging facility in Hastings, Neb., it has created a brand name, and later this year will begin production of consumer-size packages of dry pulse products such as lentils, chickpeas, pinto and black beans and split green peas.

Van Pevenage also sees one of the lingering consequences of the pandemic will be increased poverty in some parts of the world, which will increase the demand for world food aid programs. He says high-protein pulse crops, which can be easily shipped and handled, will be an important part of those food aid programs for years to come.

Opportunity for Canadian farmers

Increased demand for pulses in North American domestic as well as world markets has strengthened prices, which should benefit pulse growers both in Canada and the United States.

He says China has increased imports of soybeans from 86 million tonnes to 99 million tonnes, which has increased the price of soybeans in China, and, in turn, means buyers will be looking for alternative protein sources such as yellow peas, which should benefit Canadian growers, he says. As well, Turkey and United Arab Emirates are also looking for lentils.

The Columbia Grain plant at Plentywood, Mont., is a major pulse-processing facility.
photo: Columbia Grain

Closer to home, he points to the construction by Roquette of the world’s largest pea protein plant in Portage la Prairie, Man., which should process in the order of 200,000 to 250,000 tonnes of peas per year — good news for Canadian pea producers.

“Roquette is a global leader in plant-based ingredients,” says Van Pevenage. “Processing pulses to produce food ingredients is the next big area of market development.”

Van Pevenage also sees continuing growth in foods developed with plant-based protein. “The Asian market is very interested in plant-based protein,” he says. “And Asia is a big country.”

He says buyers for Columbia Grain are also interested in good-quality Canadian pulse crops. With a main processing plant at Plentywood, Mont., just south of the east-central Saskatchewan border, and seven other grain and pulse crop elevators along the northern half of Montana and North Dakota, he says they are always interested in looking at any samples from farms with reasonable proximity to the elevators.

“COVID-19 has fuelled an unprecedented demand for pulse crops like lentils, chickpeas, dry peas and beans,” says Van Pevenage. “It’s also coincided with a renaissance in regenerative agriculture and a strong interest in healthy, immune-boosting, plant-based diets. Pulse crops are helping to overhaul American diets and play a large role in organic and regenerative agriculture cropping systems.”

*Update: An incorrect photo of the Columbia Grain plant was displayed.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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