WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - You won’t read about it in any infrastructure legislation, but there’s a highway under construction that could join segments of Canadian and U.S. crop production and position a region for a good deal of economic success.

Stretching from the southern border of South Dakota into the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the so-called “protein highway” project involves streamlining production and processing channels in the growth and distribution of protein crops like pulses, beans and other legumes.

In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Lee Anne Murphy, executive director of the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network and a member of the project’s advisory board, said the project equates to reciprocity, but for protein crops.

“Our platform comes from a food for health perspective, but it all has to go back to adding value at the farm gate,” she said. “We’ve already done some work with some of these protein crops, but how can we take it even further and leverage some of the strengths that we see in processing in the United States, for example, or increasingly blending different proteins so we can aim for the very best quality of protein available to folks.”

Organizers are working to address problems that might arise because of restrictions brought about by the U.S.-Canadian border, but hope that territorial line won’t be a hindrance. 

“I think we’ve got to look at it as a landmass with an artificial line drawn through it,” John Oliver of Ontario-based Maple Leaf Bio Concepts and a member of the project’s advisory committee, said in an interview.

The ag-based public-private partnership across international borders is largely without precedent. The idea was kick-started by the Canadian Consulate in Minneapolis and now involves representation from a variety of sectors from both sides of the border.

The project could be uniquely positioned both geographically and ideologically as many consumers around the world start to eat less and less animal protein. Oliver pointed out that with the potential for a steady supply and lower carbon footprint, plant-based proteins could fill the nutrient gap generated when consumers want to get their protein from other sources. While he thinks the animal protein sector will continue to grow, societal factors may prove beneficial to plant protein producers.

“Society has made the decision that we’re going (to a low carbon economy),” Oliver said. “We just haven’t figured out the timeline and how fast, but I think the decision is in.”

If proteins are going to play a bigger role in global nutrition, the distinct soil and climate aspects of the region are especially beneficial to the growth of pulses and other protein crops.

“If you look at this region . . . where else on the globe has equal capacity to produce plant proteins?” Kevin Kephart, vice president for research and economic development at South Dakota State University, told Agri-Pulse. “There’s just no other place.”

Perhaps it’s serendipitous that the U.N. General Assembly has dubbed 2016 the International Year of the Pulses, as the group formulates strategy. Kephart said the project is in its “initial stages,” but the advisory committee plans to formally “roll out the vision” in September at the Agriculture Bioscience International Conference in Fargo, North Dakota. In the meantime, Murphy said the group is working on building relationships and getting public and private sector stakeholders interested and demonstrating just why the project has a chance for success.

“What’s important that we’re finding here is not that we’re all the same, but we’re similar enough that it makes sense,” Murphy said.


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