Manitoba protein strategy looks for sustainability

Profits aren’t the only kind of green the province hopes to court with its protein strategy

The power of pasture is among the environmental benefits the province wants to see recognized under its protein strategy. Photo: NRCS

Manitoba isn’t going to just produce more protein, it’s also going to do it more sustainably.

That’s one of the top goals of the provincial government’s much-heralded protein strategy, unveiled for consultation earlier this winter.

The question that raises, of course, is what that buzzword is going to mean in practice.

Pasture potential

Carbon sequestration and grasslands feature heavily on the grazing side of the equation.

Why it matters: It isn’t enough for the province to grow its protein markets; it wants points for sustainability as well.

The province hopes to decrease carbon intensity by 15 per cent per kilogram of animal protein by 2025, the government said in a February consultation paper. The same paper set a goal of 15 per cent increased productivity in Manitoba’s Agricultural Crown lands and private forage acres.

Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler called the current buzz around carbon sequestration and grazing strategies, “critically important” moving forward.

“They have an opportunity to help us help themselves and show Canadians and show the world how, working together, how this really does help our environment,” he said.

Both industry and government have pointed to practices like high-intensity rotational grazing and other techniques to counter arguments that suggest the meat sector is unsustainable.

The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association is among those advocating for the green side of grazing. Productive and well-managed pasture, they say, can increase forage growth, foster soil health and increase carbon sequestration through higher biomass.

The MFGA, Manitoba Beef Producers, and groups like Bird Studies Canada also note pasture provides habitat for rare species. That argument helped spark the Manitoba Beef Producers Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands program, centred around endangered grassland birds.

The MFGA has met with the province on how to put it all together, MFGA executive director Duncan Morrison said.

“I think it’s really key to have a producer voice in all this,” he said. “I think that producers like to learn from producers. They like to follow producers and I think this consultation is, in many ways, taking the approach that producers will be working with government agencies on these types of things that work best, the beneficial management practices that do provide some sustainability aspects.”

Morrison praised the government’s inclusion of grasslands in the strategy, but also noted challenges such as loss of grass- land in favour of cultivated land for annual crops.

Tom Teichroeb, Manitoba Beef Producers president, has also said that programs like Verified Beef Production Plus will be critical for growing the sustainable strategy. The beef certification program has helped lay the foundation for Canada’s first attempts to offer increased value for sustainably sourced beef through a certified value chain.

Plant challenges

Plant-based protein groups may have an advantage when it comes to carbon footprint.

But while soybean and pea growers may not face the same public pressure to justify their greenhouse gas emissions, they have challenges of their own.

They are fighting pests, diseases, and questions on how to manage sustainable rotations, should demand for plant proteins shoot up under the strategy.

The February consultation paper noted the need for government and industry partnerships to manage disease and pests and, “support early adoption of innovative beneficial management practices to enhance water quality, biodiversity and increase carbon sequestration.”

Daryl Domitruk, director of research and production with the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers, is well aware of the rotational worries of a sustainable pulse sector.

Sectors will have to draw protein from a variety of sources to avoid those pitfalls, he argued.

“We know that if the protein economy results in very strong increases in demand for one crop over another, simply filling the rotation with that crop is not sustainable,” he said. “Balance is going to be a key word in this. All crops have to be grown sustainably for any one crop to be successful in a given market.”

Some changes may come from the end-user, Domitruk said. Companies selling plant protein may well implement their own sustainability, traceability and quality requirements for any acres they contract.

Roquette may be one such example. The French company released a list of quality requirements for its incoming plant in Portage la Prairie during Ag Days 2019. The plant will only be taking yellow peas of No. 2 quality or better, without contamination from allergens like wheat or soy and untouched by GMO crops or the desiccant diquat, risk and grain department manager John Buch said at the time.

“I think you can look to other industries right now and see that there is a growing requirement to meet standards with respect to environmental performance and animal welfare and all of these other things,” Domitruk said. “We expect to see those in the protein indus- try and that means that we have to be prepared to do the things that those buyers of protein require.”

Those changes may mean farmers tracking their practices more carefully, he said.

The Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers is trying to anticipate what those tracking requirements will look like.

Domitruk pointed to the tightening framework around pesticides, something he warns may tighten even further with company-instituted metrics.

Research needed

Manitoba’s capacity for research has also given the commodity group pause.

The province is relatively new to the plant protein game following the explosive popularity of soybeans, Domitruk pointed out. Last year, soybeans were among the three most commonly grown crops in the province, as reported by MASC, something that would have been unheard of two decades ago.

But while that novelty has given Manitoba a grace period on pulse-specific pests, such as certain root rots, it also means that research infra- structure isn’t as developed in the province.

“We need to develop some deeper capacity in those areas if we’re going to seriously capture some of those markets,” Domitruk said.

The province will have to join forces with out-of-province researchers if it hopes to develop crops like lentils, which are more common in Saskatchewan and have little research in Manitoba, he argued.

Manitoba does have regions that could serve as an analogue for those regions,he said, pointing to the similarity between southwest Manitoba and southeast Saskatchewan.

The sector is collaborating, and, according to Domitruk, will likely keep collaborating, with some of those outside researchers on variety testing and agronomic research.

The province has planned a “protein summit” in Winnipeg Sept. 16 to outline its consultations.

This article was originally published on the Manitoba Co-operator.

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