Saskatchewan may be known for wheat and canola, but another crop has become a quiet international bestseller. Homegrown pulses – lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans and faba beans –are supplying traditional and growing markets, including the Middle East and North Africa, Southeast Asia, India, and Latin America. The pulses are widely used in protein-rich, high-fibre dishes, ranging from hummus to soups.

“We’re no longer just the bread basket of the world,” says Murad Al-Katib, president and CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients in Regina“We’re now a major part of the global protein highway.”

The province, which accounts for more than 40 per cent of Canada’s farmland, produces 90 per cent of the country’s pulses for export and 35 per cent of the global pulse trade.

“Since 2012 we’ve more than doubled acreage devoted to lentils in Saskatchewan,” says Carl Potts, executive director of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers association. “In 2015, we exported $2.5-billion worth of lentils, which puts it on par with wheat and canola exports.”

For its part, AGT is the largest valued-added processor of pulses in the world, with 2015 revenues of $1.7-billion, more than 2,200 employees and 41 processing plants on five continents.

“Value added” or “agri-value” traditionally refers to the processing of raw materials into ingredients and finished foods, for example, when canola becomes canola oil.

At AGT’s Regina value-added processing facility, each red lentil kernel is skinned, split in half, polished with water or oil, and then packaged for international export. Agri-food exports have become a cornerstone of Saskatchewan’s trade-based economy, accounting for about one-third of its total exports.

While crop surpluses and competition originally forced farmers to look beyond wheat and expand to oil seeds, these crops are hard on soil over time, depleting it of nitrogen and creating potential disease and quality issues down the road. In some cases, producers may even leave a field unplanted until the summer following (“summerfallow”) just to keep the field’s nutrients intact. Pulses, however, are a lucrative addition to the crop rotation – they take less land and water to grow and are environmentally sustainable.

Pulses take nitrogen from the air, says Potts, thereby reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed. Pulses also reduce the amount of nitrogen needed to be added to the soils in the crop grown on the same field the following year.

“Pulses also improve soil health and add another crop to farmers’ rotations,” he explains, “breaking disease cycles and things like that.”

In turning Saskatchewan into a world pulse power, farmers, processors and their grower associations have worked hand-in-hand with the provincial government.

Not only have government tax and incentive programs – and cutting of red tape – helped the initiative, explains Potts, its trade missions have done much to open markets worldwide for local pulse growers.

Government-supported crop and production research has helped to increase productivity as well, he adds, working with research partners, such as the University of Saskatchewan, to create pulse varieties that grow well in dry, fertile soil and cold environments.

The diversification of crops has also had other benefits.

“We’re a multi-dimensional commodity-based economy,” explains Mr. Al-Katib. “When you have challenges in a commodity cycle – as we have with the oil and gas sector – agri-value diversifies this economy and gives us a very strong performer to balance it.”

With the world population rising, especially in developing countries, the demand for Saskatchewan pulses is expected to keep rising, says Potts, underscoring the challenge to find innovative ways to meet the demand, as well as educating North American consumers about the health benefits of vegetable proteins.

A back door into non-traditional markets would be to use pulses as ingredients for existing foods. For example, even though China does not have a history of eating pulses, it has become Canada’s second largest market for yellow peas because the starch from the peas is extracted to make noodles.

“The world population is supposed to grow to nine billion by 2050,” says Potts. “The demand for plant-based protein is only going to increase.”