Taking the pulse of soybeans in the West

Soybean Guide: For soybeans to take over in the West, they’ll need to nudge pulses aside. These farmers say, don’t bet on it

soybean pod in farmer's hand

Pulses are among Canada’s crop success stories, with strong agronomics and dynamite market opportunities.

But a new challenger is trying to win acres away from pulses, and yes, that challenge is extremely well established in other parts of North America and around the globe, which means this might become an interesting family fight.

But the pulse industry is confident it has what it takes to hold on to its piece of the pie.

Although soybeans might be competing with pulses for acreage, their food use is not at all the same. And that makes all the difference in the world, according to marketers.

Pulse crops hit the ground running in the 1970s. They filled a need among farmers for a marketable crop that, when added to the farm rotation, also helped in the battle against weeds, disease and pests. Like soybeans, pulses are legumes, and farmers appreciated their ability to fix nitrogen.

By 1995, some 2.5 million acres of dry beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas were being seeded. Last year, the land seeded to all pulses and special crops in Canada reached 8.5 million acres, or about 13 per cent of total seeded acreage.

“We believe there’s room for pulses,” says Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, and he points to expected strong sales growth owing to consumers interested in healthy foods.

Potts’s organization is fixing its sights on new markets and new uses for pulses in a bid to expand the market base and reach the potential of 25 per cent of Canadian crop acreage. Canada ships pulses to almost 150 countries, but a small few (India, China, Bangladesh) account for a very large share.

Gord Bacon is chief executive officer of Pulse Canada, and as he sees it, we’ve just started to scratch the surface of all that pulses can be.

“Our traditional markets for pulses and traditional forms of consumption are of huge importance to farmers and the rest of the Canadian pulse industry,” says Bacon. “Part of our focus is on improving efficiencies in the system — making sure that what we do now, we do really well.”

Bacon says tackling transportation issues is one example of how Pulse Canada will continue to get involved in activities and partnerships that assist the core marketing work headed up by Canada’s farmers, processors and exporters. Through the Canadian Special Crops Association, Pulse Canada aims to address the significant transportation challenges that pulses, like other crops, experienced this past year by monitoring and measuring system performance and improving the level of service. The federal government is reviewing the national Transportation Act, and pulse associations are involved.

But the focus that really lights a fire under Pulse Canada these days is food product innovation. Bacon says this entails looking at pulses from the perspective of both what the consumer wants and what the consumer needs. Pulses have the science to achieve breakthroughs in nutrition, blood sugar health, allergenicity, and the environmental sustainability of food products.

Pulses are showing up in all kinds of foods, and that’s one reason why acreage is set to grow. In 2012, Bacon says, 304 new food products were launched in Canada and the U.S. that contained pulses, either in whole or in fractions or distillates. In 2013, there were 709 new pulse products, and the number is expected to show another increase when 2014 numbers are released.

Health Canada is said to be on the verge of approving a health claim linking pulse foods to reduced heart disease and diabetes.

All of this is very exciting as the pulse industry readies itself for the United Nations International Year of Pulses in 2016.

Still, Pulse Canada says it isn’t in competition with soybeans, and Bacon says co-operation between the two crops will yield benefits for both, so when Soy Canada, the new national association dedicated to soybeans, was announced in September 2014, Manitoba Pulse Growers joined its board.

Pulse research is trying to stay ahead of the curve so pulses continue to be the crop of choice. Dr. Sabine Banniza at the University of Saskatchewan notes that researchers have been effective in dealing with canopy diseases, such as ascochyta blight in chickpeas and lentils, as well as anthracnose in lentils. Research is also looking at solving stemphylium blight in lentils by exploring a wild relative and understanding how its resistance genes might be easily moved into cultivated varieties.

Banniza says researchers are also trying to create a better defence against root rot in peas and lentils. Once infected, there is nothing that can be done for the crops, nor can current seed treatments prevent infection.

Perhaps not coincidentally, regions of southeastern Saskatchewan have seen more acres turned over to soybeans. The same is true in southwestern Manitoba where more soybeans are being seeded because of earlier varieties. Ontario remains Canada’s largest soybean producer but in 2014 Manitoba’s production grew to 18 per cent of the total.

But Canada’s buyers continue to be positive about pulses. Margaret Hughes, co-owner of Best Cooking Pulses, with plants in Portage la Prairie and Regina, says pulses are showing up in more and more cereals, baked goods and pasta. Pulses are also launching in grain-free pet foods with significant success.

“Funding from the Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta Pulse Growers, in concert with the Canadian government, has increased research into pulses,” Hughes says. “Pulse Canada now has the marketing ammunition it needs to promote pulses throughout the Canadian food industry.”

This article first appeared in the February 2015 Soybean Guide

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