Jennifer Wells: With the Liberals back in power, could Canada claim the world stage in plant-based proteins?

Jennifer Wells: With the Liberals back in power, could Canada claim the world stage in plant-based proteins?
Remember superclusters? How about those elusive “global champions?” Does the phrase “endowment attributes” ring a bell?

Pressing the reset button on how this country is governed politically yanks us back to the early days of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first administration, a time when the new PM appeared so bedazzled by Dominic Barton that he named the McKinsey management consultant chair of Canada’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth. Given Barton’s criticism of the tyranny of short-term capitalism, or “quarterly capitalism,” Barton looked like a shrewd choice for go-forward economic thinking focused on long-term value creation with sustainability and equity as two core attributes.

Barton named infrastructure, competitive market environments (more free trade deals), building the country’s talent pool and innovation as top priorities. The “superclusters” idea was born from the notion of spurring economic growth in chosen areas by co-locating talent and private sector muscle, then adding government-driven assistance through such measures as infrastructure improvements and matched project funding, or “jump-start investment” in the government’s phrasing.

Can superclusters be created? When Harvard economist Michael Porter coined the term more than two decades ago he emphasized that such clusters could be defined as “critical masses — in one place — of unusual competitive success in particular fields.” It didn’t help the government’s case when it described its cluster initiatives as “bold and ambitious strategies that would transform regional innovation ecosystems and develop job-creating superclusters of innovation, like Silicon Valley.” Nothing like setting the bar a little high.

When I wrote about this two years ago I quoted one expert dismissing the notion that a cluster could be created where the basis of a cluster doesn’t already exist. But, where the ground had already been tilled, as it were, government-driven economic development policies could enhance performance.

So was this about trying to pick winners, a commonly doomed strategy?

Or about providing a protein boost to areas of clear promise?

Now that we find ourselves inhabiting a new political landscape, can we work with the government’s idea of three years ago and build on it?

In a word, yes.

And in another word, agriculture.

Little was said about agriculture during the tortured campaign. But it’s a challenge to cite another industry so central to the Canadian identity, so promising in terms of global branding, so entwined not just with the pressing concerns of the climate crisis but with the promise of meeting the challenge of a changing environment. Just think of how consumer awareness of plant-based meat alternatives has soared through the Liberals’ first term in office.

In June, Ottawa took a step forward in announcing the first funding recipient for the Prairie-based protein supercluster. Botaneco is a Calgary-based company that brings research and development and a value-added approach to commodities. The commodities: such oil seeds as hemp and canola. The process: separation and purification of the oil from the seed. The uses: protein concentrates, emulsifiers, feed meal.

Think of the difference between being a commodity shipper and a commodity upgrader.

Think of a Canadian company working to be a world pace-setter in the extraction of oleosomes, or sequestered oils.

Think of skin care products with hydrating safflower oil extracted from the Prairies rich plant-based endowment.

Botaneco promotes itself as a seeker of “big potential in small seeds” and I cite it here simply as one small example of what could be. The $8-million investment, half of which comes from the private sector, will be spread across two years and directed at expansion of the company’s research capacity. The initiative partners Botaneco with Rowland Farms, Canada’s largest organic grain producer, and Corteva Agriscience, a U.S chemical and seed company.

The big test lies ahead. Will other investments follow? (A total of $4.5 billion across 10 years was initially promised.) Will Canada claim the world stage in plant-based proteins? Will the minority Liberal government wake up to the merits of placing the agriculture portfolio top of the pile? That means not just advancing small pots of money, but doing the hard work in removing red tape and regulatory barriers.

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Here are some branding words that work well on the world stage: sustainable, trustworthy, traceable, ecologically conscious, safe.

Or, Canada, the trusted global leader in nutritious and sustainable food.

Of course that sounds like the tag line from an advertisement. But the PM could use some effective Prairie-based promotion right about now.
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