Big Ag Turns to Peas to Meet Soaring Global Protein Demand

A box of Cheerios cereal, fortified with soy and pea protein, is seen in this photo illustration in Wilmette
A box of Cheerios cereal, fortified with soy and pea protein, is seen in this photo illustration in Wilmette, Illinois, U.S., September 12, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Rod Nickel and P.J. Huffstutter

Cargill, the global grains trader, sees the future of protein in the humble pea

In a joint venture at a Wisconsin plant, flour milled from Iowa yellow peas is mixed with water and spun at high speed through stainless steel drums, separating the protein from starch and fiber.

The resulting powder ends up blended into waffle mixes, sports drinks, nutrition bars and protein shakes – small examples of a much larger push by the world’s biggest agriculture firms to find alternative plant-based proteins to feed people and livestock worldwide.

“When we looked at where is the future going, the pea is the up-and-coming thing,” said David Henstrom, Cargill Inc’s vice-president of starches, sweeteners and texturizers.


Pea plants are shown at a PURIS seed plot in Oskaloosa
Pea plants are shown at a PURIS seed plot in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in this June 2017 handout photo obtained by Reuters March 16, 2018. Bill Phelps/Puris/Handout via REUTERS


Peas are in many ways the ideal modern American food: protein-rich, plant-based and gluten-free. While the market remains relatively small, the demand for pea powder and other emerging protein sources is soaring, from the middle classes in China and the health-conscious in California to livestock producers and fish farmers who need to fatten animals on ever-tighter budgets.

Cargill and its competitors – such as Archer Daniels Midland and Richardson International, the biggest Canadian grain handler – are investing in specialty ingredients in search of higher profit margins than they can extract from bigger commodity crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat.

Cargill invested an undisclosed sum in January in a joint venture with PURIS, a family-run company that started in Iowa as a seed company and now owns the Wisconsin pea-powder plant. The two firms are also working to boost the protein content in peas through cross-breeding, which has not been previously reported.

Cargill rival ADM is building its own pea processing plant in North Dakota and signing contracts with farmers to buy and grow yellow peas, Ken Campbell, ADM’s president of specialty ingredients, said in a statement to Reuters. Company researchers are also studying another 30 types of protein options, including nuts and seeds.


Other firms are trying draw more protein from canola, oats and many other so-called emerging proteins, and Cargill has explored insect-based feed for fish and poultry

Seed and chemical firm DowDuPont Inc told Reuters it plans to launch a canola seed supercharged with protein through traditional cross-breeding as soon as next year.

Richardson International started construction in April of a C$30-million ($23 million) laboratory in Winnipeg to study proteins and other food ingredients. The firm is exploring a move into pea and oat protein concentrates that could start next year, senior vice-president of technology Chuck Cohen said in an interview.



France-based food ingredient company Roquette is building plant in Manitoba to produce pea proteins in North America, which currently imports from Europe.



Projections for soaring sales from alternative plant proteins have enticed large grain traders that make money by buying, selling, storing, shipping and trading crops. Years of oversupplied grain markets and thin margins have squeezed the trading operations of ADM, Bunge Ltd , Cargill and Louis Dreyfus Co – known collectively as the “ABCDs” – although conditions have improved recently.

Global demand for protein – whether from meat, aquaculture or plant sources – is booming in part due to rising incomes in emerging markets in Asia and Africa, industry analysts say.


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