By Julienne Isaacs
Manitoba’s protein research strategy will help develop industry opportunities, connect research dots and lead to innovative new tools.
Whether from animals, plants or aquaculture, Manitoba has the capacity to produce, process or manufacture a great deal of high-quality protein – this is the province’s “Protein Advantage,” says Dickson Gould, president of the Progressive Group of Companies and Manitoba’s Protein Consortium Chair.
In 2019, the province launched the Manitoba Protein Advantage (MPA) Strategy, which aims to attract investment in protein processing, increase production and processing of proteins supported by research and development, and establish sustainability targets. Since that date, the province has attracted $680 million in new investments, generating more than 600 new jobs in the protein industry, Gould says. The government of Manitoba has invested $4.7 million through Ag Action Manitoba (Canadian Agricultural Partnership) and has committed to promoting collaboration between researchers and industry through the establishment of a Protein Research Chair.
MPA appointed eight individuals to the Protein Consortium in January 2020 to help implement these goals. James House is a professor in the department of food and human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba, and the lead on the Manitoba Protein Research Strategy. He says the strategy has four key deliverables, many of which have been completed.
The first was to set up a survey within the province’s research community to get an understanding of the province’s human and infrastructure capacity. “With the qualitative data we received, we established a relationship with the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative, and they established a searchable database in Manitoba for expertise that relates to protein,” he says.
The second goal, according to House, was to organize a sustainable protein research symposium; the first annual event was held last year, and the second will happen in June 2022, he says.
The third and fourth goals, respectively, were to complete a research gap analysis, which identified 49 themes or research areas to help establish funding priorities, and to establish the Research Chair in Protein Innovation at the University of Manitoba.
House adds the four areas that were identified as being the biggest “gaps” in research included climate resiliency of protein food systems, management and utilization of waste, water, byproducts and coproducts, novel protein product development and processing, and digital agriculture and food systems. The research chair, once appointed, will bring a broad perspective and provide links between the various research angles.
House says funding for plant protein projects comes from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program, as well as commodity groups and private industry. When it comes to plant protein, Manitoba Agriculture has contributed almost $3.5 million in funding on plant protein research in the province, according to a spokesperson. This includes projects aimed at improving processing technology, developing alternative uses for processing by-products and developing automation in crop production and processing.
House’s lab is working on boosting plant protein quality, which includes amino acid content of crops and digestibility. In collaboration with the Crop Development Centre in Saskatchewan, Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers and University of Manitoba canola breeder Rob Duncan, House leads four programs that aim to develop rapid assessment tools for amino acid composition and protein quality in canola, pea, lentil and soybean in the Prairies.
The research approach is roughly the same for lentil and pea. On the lentil side, House and his collaborators have received samples from a global diversity panel that they’ve analyzed for amino acid composition using near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS). The NIRS data isn’t as precise as they’d like it to be, but without NIRS, he says, it’s difficult and time consuming to measure annually the amino acid composition of hundreds of samples coming out of breeding programs. House says NIRS has been used for years for this purpose, but mostly in the feed sector. The new research could be applied in the food sector for improving the nutritional content of lentils and peas.
“With the NIRS approach you can generate data that’s robust enough that you can use it in your selection tools. Once you’ve got the genetics of the plant down, you can link genetic data with phenotypic data and agronomic data like yield and protein content. What we’re adding is the amino acid content – so you can look for genetic markers for amino acids. If you can identify some of these key markers, you can use that as a selection tool.”
House’s lab is not alone in researching applications of NIRS technology in improving plant proteins: Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers is also working to improve protein quality, as well as a further project aimed at improving processing byproducts for repurposing and introducing into the food supply system. The latter will be an important area for future research, according to Gould.
“We really invest in opportunities for byproducts so that economic value can be paid to the producer. Manitoba can be competitive on the world stage, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”