Volume 6 | Issue 3 | Year 2010

The hostile takeover bid by Australian giant BHP Billiton for Saskatchewan’s Potash Corporation spotlighted rising global food consumption and the convergent demand for crop nutrients.
More than 90 percent of the world’s potash consumption is used in fertilizers, so its place at our global table is enormous. Potash is important to agriculture because it improves water retention, yield, nutrient value, taste, color, texture and disease resistance of food crops including rice, wheat and other grains, sugar, corn, soybeans, palm oil, cotton, fruit and vegetables.

Global agriculture faces the prospect of a changing climate and the challenge of feeding the world’s population that grows annually at about 1.3 percent and is projected to double its present level of 6.5 billion by 2063. It’s crucial that we ensure that enough protein is available to feed the world. Protein is one of only three macronutrients present in everyone’s diet (along with carbohydrate and fat), and it appears the most important. The amino acids that form proteins are important for growth, tissue repair and replacement. Almost every part of the body – especially bones and muscles – requires amino acids to stay healthy. But maintaining our world’s current protein production levels will further deplete our land, water and fossil fuel resources. Clearly, we need to invest in research and infrastructure solutions that will provide protein to regions vulnerable to food deficits.

PLANT VS. ANIMAL PROTEIN

In the struggle to feed our growing world population, plant proteins trump animal proteins in production efficiency, environmental and health benefits. Animal protein production demands significant amounts of our global energy and natural resource supplies. In addition, according to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions, as measured in CO2 equivalent (18 percent), than the transport sector. In essence, rearing livestock creates significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars – not to mention the cost of land and water degradation.

Plant protein production, on the other hand, offers a lower environmental impact and a sustainable solution by reducing energy consumption, emissions, land usage and water consumption. Producers must feed plant protein to animals to produce animal proteins and animals are not efficient converters, pound for pound, of the proteins they consume. On average, about six kilograms of plant protein is required to produce one kilogram of animal protein.

Our growing global population needs affordable protein. According to global population forecasts, by 2050 about nine billion people will need to be fed. Thus, access to inexpensive plant proteins is crucial in feeding this rising global population without adding undue stress to our environment.

HEALTH BENEFITS

Accessibility isn’t the only consideration. Consumption of plant-based proteins has been shown to enhance heart health. For instance, soy protein added to a diet diminishes the threat of heart disease by reducing LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – the so-called “bad” cholesterol. Research studies have demonstrated the cholesterol-lowering properties of soy protein. With this evidence, 11 countries have approved health claims for soy protein’s potential to lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Plant-based diets are also high in fiber and low in fat. Numerous studies indicate that high-fiber, low-fat diets decrease rates of certain cancers (e.g., colon, breast and prostate). In addition, this type of diet is believed to reduce the risk of diabetes.

HEALTHY MARKET

Market demand for plant proteins is steadily increasing. According to Frost & Sullivan, the U.S. protein-ingredients market alone was forecasted to generate nearly US$4.5 billion in revenues in 2008 (43.3 percent plant proteins and 56.7 percent animal proteins) and is projected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 4.5 percent to 2014, with plant proteins expected to grow at an even higher rate. The global protein ingredient market is assumed to be multiples of the U.S. market.

Several market and demographic factors fuel the growth of the plant protein ingredients industry. One notable factor is the growing number of middle-class consumers in the developing world (China and India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Russia). In these countries, tens of millions of individuals are rising from a basic subsistence level of earnings to middle-class income levels. As their buying power rises, they direct a significant portion of their new income to food purchases, and this has generated a substantial increase in the demand for protein ingredients. Meanwhile, in America, food manufacturers respond to demand from health-conscious baby boomers and the growing number of consumers who prefer meat-free, high protein foods. Also, high and volatile animal protein prices have put cost pressures on global food manufacturers. As a result, manufacturers have been compelled to find innovative ways to utilize inexpensive plant proteins as replacements (or at least partial replacements) for expensive animal proteins. Finally, there is the growing awareness of environmental sustainability in food sourcing. Production of animal proteins is viewed as less “environmentally economical” when compared to the production of plant proteins.

Johann F. Tergesen is president and chief operating officer of Burcon NutraScience Corporation, a leader in the development of functional, renewable plant proteins, including soy and canola proteins. For more information, visit the corporation’s Web site at www.burcon.ca.