What is Alternative Plant-Based Protein?
An estimated 2.3 million people in Canada are vegetarians, 820,000 people are vegan, and an even larger amount is open to reducing their meat consumption or trying new meat-free products. Plant-based alternative proteins, such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, have become increasingly common in grocery stores and restaurants. Yet, many people might not know where they come from, how they are made, and how they can help with not only Canada’s net zero climate goals, but Canada’s economy.
Alternative plant proteins - what are they?
Alternative protein, also known as alt protein or plant-based protein, is a term for foods, ingredients, or beverages that have protein derived from non-animal sources. Alternative proteins have been around for millennia in the form of foods like soybeans and peas. Some of the most well-known plant proteins include:
- Oilseed protein: soybeans, canola, peanut, sunflower seed, flaxseed, linseed
- Cereal protein: wheat, corn, rice, oats
- Legume and pulse protein: beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas
Of course, people can simply eat raw plants, but many still desire the taste and texture of traditional meat and dairy foods. Alternative plant proteins also can be processed to create products that look, taste, and feel like meat, such as the Impossible Burger and the Canadian-made Yves Veggie products.
How are plant proteins made?
Many plants can be eaten as they are, raw or cooked, such as beans and grains. There is also an array of alternative protein products with different methods of production. Tofu is made by processing soybeans into milk and then into tofu blocks. Microbial fermentation transforms food such as soybeans and other legumes into tempeh. Alternative proteins can also be created by recombining plant protein structures. For pea protein, as an example, the protein fraction of the pea plant is separated, and the protein isolate is extracted. The protein isolate can then be mixed with other ingredients to create a final product, such as a plant-based burger.
Environmental impact and implications for net zero
Plant-based alternative proteins aren’t just a tasty substitute for animal products. Globally, they are also a key component of the push to reach net zero by 2050. Currently, the need to reduce global meat production and consumption is high as it represents an estimated 14.5% of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and about 30% of all global methane emissions come from livestock.
Recent research shows that for high-income countries, moving to a plant-based diet could reduce emissions associated with food consumption by as much as 61%; increase carbon sequestration through the preservation of forests, wetlands, and other natural vegetation; and could help curb both GHG emissions and reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural land and water use. In fact, recent figures from the Good Food Institute suggest that, depending on the protein source, plant-based meat emits around 30-90% fewer GHGs than conventional meat (kg-CO2-eq/kg-meat) and uses 72–99% less water.
For Canada, transitioning from the average Canadian’s high-meat consumption diet to a more plant-based one could be significant enough to help Canada achieve both its 2030 and 2050 targets. More specifically, if more people in Canada chose tempeh over beef, greenhouse gas emissions could undergo a 50% reduction by 2030. If this trend continued, a further 80% reduction could occur by 2050. Furthermore, with the recent focus from provincial governments on producing and processing more crops in-province, such as pea processing and canola crushing in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, there are fewer transport emissions in getting the crops processed, onto grocery store shelves, and into your home.
Investment and employment – the importance and impact
Beyond sustainability, alternative proteins represent a significant economic growth opportunity for major agricultural centers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to grow, process, and produce products for a projected $250 billion industry by 2035. Already, interest in the alternative protein sector has attracted significant investment. One of the five Global Innovation Clusters, Protein Industries Canada (PIC), has directly invested $153 million from the federal government into pilot programs, research initiatives, and business support. This investment has attracted an additional $305 million from industry matching.
The Roquette pea processing plant in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba has received a $600 million independent investment and is the largest pea processing plant of its kind. It is expected to directly employ over 120 employees, supporting many more across the region. Similarly, the Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy has a goal of attracting 1.5 billion in investment for new facilities and infrastructure and creating 1,550 jobs in the alternative protein sector.
Saskatchewan is also a center of this developing industry, not only as a world leader in the production of pulses, lentils, oilseeds, and grains but in the processing and manufacturing of these products. Programs like the Saskatchewan Value-Added Agriculture Incentive (SVAI) have helped to bring more processors and factories to the province, and the sector is estimated to employ over 5000 individuals, largely around Regina, but also in towns and cities like Moose Jaw and Vanscoy.
The worldwide demand for meat and protein is estimated to rise by 40 to 100 percent by 2050 if current GDP and population trends continue. As such, there is a significant opportunity for increased production capacity and investment in places like Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This push for agriculture in these provinces to move from commodities production to ingredient manufacturing is helping to create skilled local jobs and achieve a share in a potential $250 billion industry by 2035.
Alternative plant-based protein is not just a consumer fad or an alternative when ordering dinner, but a viable solution to reducing GHG emissions and a significant economic opportunity for Canada. Additional research is needed to understand the scope of the labour demands for this burgeoning sector and what can be done by governments, industry, educational institutions, and other stakeholders to support and grow the Canadian alternative protein sector – areas that PLACE is currently exploring. International interest in Canada’s alternative protein capacity is growing; now is the time for Canada to leverage its strengths in innovation and agriculture to build a robust leading alternative protein sector.