Plant-Based Protein: The Government’s Latest Investment in Clean Technology

While the Canadian government’s recent investment in a plant-based food facility was a welcome investment in the agricultural industry, it was also a promising investment in clean technology.

Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an announcement that Federal Government would be supplying Merit Functional Foods with an interest-free $10 million loan through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s AgriInnovate Program. Merit Functional Foods is a Canadian company that manufactures high-quality plant-based proteins, such as pea protein and canola protein, using Canadian crops. The $10 million loan brings the project’s total government backing to over $95 million, which Merit plans to use towards completing its state-of-the-art, 94,000 square foot plant protein production facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The facility is scheduled for completion by the end of 2020.

The project was partly funded by AgriInnovate, which aims to accelerate the commercialization of innovating technologies that increase Canadian agriculture’s competitiveness and sustainability. Project applications are prioritized based on whether they advance the government’s agenda in particular areas, one of those being the adoption of “world leading clean technology.”

While it’s unclear if the Merit project was prioritized through its classification as clean technology, it is clear based on the scientific record that an investment in plant-based food science is an investment in such technology.

Background on the Plant-Based Movement

As someone who grew up in a vegetarian household, I was highly aware of the early phases of the plant-based movement in North America. The China Study was an important book in our family, brought down from the bookshelf every few months for re-examination.

Recently, however, plant-based foods have been gaining popularity at an unprecedented rate. It’s not exactly clear what led to this change, but easy access to documentaries like Forks Over Knives on Netflix and support from celebrities through things like Beyonce’s plant-based meal plan certainly didn’t hurt.

Today, some might say the final frontier has been reached: the fast food industry. There has been a major rollout of plant-based options across McDonald’s, A&W, Wendy’s, and KFC. Even Maple Leaf Foods, a meat company, has introduced a 50/50 burger, consisting of 50% meat and 50% plant-based protein, which the company says will help consumers “eat less meat, without giving it up all together.” With the number of US food and drink products using the words “plant-based” in their labelling rising 287 percent from 2012 to 2018, the plant-based movement is clearly gaining serious momentum.

The term cleantech refers to processes or products that improve environmental outcomes, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, and water and air pollution. Innovative plant-based foods, their chemical makeups, and their manufacturing processes fall into this category, because they reduce or eliminate the environmental impacts of meat consumption.

The Environmental Impact of Meat Consumption

The meat industry is harmful to the environment in four specific ways: (1) emission of greenhouse gases; (2) acidification and eutrophication of the environment; (3) consumption of natural resources, in particular energy and water; and (4) pollution from animal waste and waste water discharge.

In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a comprehensive report on the various environmental impacts of livestock production. Some key statistics include:

  • The total area dedicated to livestock feed crop production is 33% of total arable land
  • The livestock sector is the largest anthropogenic user of land, taking up 26% of all ice-free terrestrial surface
  • Deforestation and other land use changes emit 2.4 billion tonnes of CO2 per year
  • The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions
  • On-farm fossil fuel use may emit up to 90 million tonnes of CO2 per year
  • The livestock sector is responsible for 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain
  • The meat industry is the largest sectoral source of water pollution, responsible for ⅓ of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads in freshwater resources in the US, as well as heavy metals, pathogens and drug residues
  • Livestock require an enormous amount of water. For poultry, it’s highest, at an estimated 1,590 litres per bird and for dairy, it’s 1 litre per kilogram of milk.

This and other evidence led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to recommend dietary changes in its Special Report on Climate Change and Land in 2016. The Report suggests that diets featuring plant-based foods “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation … By 2050, dietary changes could free several million km of land and provide a technical mitigation potential of 0.7 to 8.0 GtCO2eq (gross tonnage carbon dioxide equivalent), relative to business as usual projections.” Clearly, innovative plant-based food production is clean technology worth investing in.

Of course, plant-based foods come with their own problems (think monocultures, the almond controversy, for example). However, if individuals choose their plant-based options wisely, and the government continues to support research and development in the plant-based food industry, the availability of innovative plant-based foods may have a significant impact on the environment.

It’s exciting to see the Canadian government investing in clean technology through a variety of channels, including through agricultural innovation. It shows that Canada is serious about investing in the health and economic prosperity of its citizens by providing jobs, keeping the supply chain within Canada, and protecting our environment.

Written by Rachel Marcus. Rachel is going into her third year at Osgoode Hall Law School. She is a Fellow with the IP Osgoode Innovation Clinic, and a student in the IP and Technology Law Intensive.

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