Pulse Beat Individual Articles

The Global Politics of Manitoba Pulses and Soybeans

By Toban Dyck, farmer and writer

STARTING IN APRIL, India will hold the world’s largest election. With nearly one billion eligible voters, it will be a long, seven- stage process running from April 19 to June 1.

And Canada’s agriculture industry is watching this election.

As a consistent customer, India helped create the conditions for Canada’s pulse sector to flourish. Any policy changes in India – a country of 1.4 billion people – have the ability to impact our pulse sector.

More than 50 countries have or will hold national elections in 2024, shifting balances of power, affecting trade relationships, and potentially impacting prices and demand for Manitoba’s pulse and soybean crops.

The story of Manitoba’s crops being on plates around the world is a political one that involves real people, living in countries all over the globe.

The uncertainty and impact of election outcomes, along with the seemingly irrational trade disruptions the agriculture industry has endured over the past number of years, points to an unsettling connection between the crops farmers grow and the political weapons governments use against others and against their own. These conditions reveal how vulnerable the pulse and soybean markets are to political whims.

Pulse Canada believes, regardless of political outcomes, the pulse industry can play a role pushing progress to the benefit of both sides. While Canadians may be able to ship their peas to China, the market is still closed to Canadian lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and adzuki beans. Pulse Canada President Greg Cherewyk says there is a market for the crops there.

“In China, there’s demand for a wider range of plant-based proteins,” Cherewyk explains. “They do have an advanced food industry, and they have an interest, for example, in accessing faba beans for their neutral flavour profile and high protein content.”

In 2018, Pulse Canada submitted pest risk assessment documentation that would allow Chinese officials to determine on their own that there’s no risk associated with importing these crops. But, by the end of that year political tensions between Canada and China had escalated and it became very difficult to advance market access priorities. Despite the holdup Cherewyk knows there is still opportunity in the market.

“Maybe this is the low-hanging-fruit opportunity for both the Chinese government and the Canadian government to start working together at an operational level – at a plant protection agency level. We could get back to the table for the first time in seven years and check off one box – get one little win that demonstrates we can still find ways to work together,” he adds.

China is a country Canada can’t afford to ignore. It imports around one million tonnes of Canadian soybeans every year. They use soybean oil, and eat soybeans in tofu, edamame and other dishes. Domestically, China can produce only a fraction of what they need – roughly 15 per cent. Trade is shifting though with other countries undercutting Canadian crop prices.

“Russia and Ukraine are beginning to export peas at cheaper prices and both China and India are open for business,” says Cherewyk.”

This means two of the world’s largest markets are now importing peas from Russia, a country that is reportedly growing more peas than ever before.

“Market competition is increasing,” explains Cherewyk. “This is the first year Australia will export more lentils to India than Canada. That competition is not going away. And, unless something dramatically changes in Russia and Ukraine, there’s going to be more peas produced there, too.”

“There is more production coming out of Kazakhstan, too. All of this has an impact on our traditional markets, so it’s important we have a plan and execute against it.”

These anecdotes point to a sentiment shared among a growing chorus of people championing collaborations between industry and government on common challenges to create smart, agile solutions. The marketplace is no longer what it once was and requires the swift seizure of opportunities and the stamina to keep driving forward.

The need for industry and government to work together is just as relevant to India’s market as it is to China’s.

“India is a country to watch very carefully,” says Neil Townsend, chief market analyst at GrainFox. “Fiscal disparities are increasing. There are a lot of poor people in rural and urban areas. The average farm size is decreasing, bucking the global trend of growing farming operations. Crop productivity is not increasing a lot, either, like it has in Canada or other countries.”

India is Canada’s largest importer of lentils. It’s also a country with which Canada has had a complex relationship. Domestic policies in India have spurred devasting tariffs on Canadian pulse imports in the past.

Regardless of politics, the reality is that India, the most populous country in the world, is a place where citizens eat pulses at nearly every meal, and they rely on imports to do so.

While India’s election will take place over the course of a few months, last October, Argentina elected its new president, Javier Milei. His next moves in power could also affect Canada’s soybean exports.

“He’s quite extreme, and he’s a bit of an outsider,” explains Townsend. “He doesn’t have a majority of support in the Argentinian political system. He has to negotiate to get things through, but there could be some drastic changes that happen with their export tax regime, which could speed up or slow down soybean trade.”

Argentina’s export regulations have spurred growth in the country’s soybean processing capacity. Their tax system favours the export of soybean oil and meal instead of the raw commodity, potentially creating, according to Townsend, a one million tonne opportunity for Canadian soybeans in the market.

“There’s potential for change in Argentina,” adds Townsend. “Argentina, as a soybean-producing country, is worth watching and being mindful of, and that goes for their pulses, too. They produce a lot of pulses.”

And then there’s the United States election.

On Nov. 5, 2024 U.S. voters will choose between former President Donald Trump or current President Joe Biden.

“I think that leading up into the election, there’ll be a lot of nervousness in the market,” Townsend says — referring to the volatility Trump represents and the ongoing conflict between Gaza and Israel and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

However, there is work back home in Manitoba to fight back against the instability. Last fall, ProteinMB launched as a way to mobilize and bring together all the actors in Manitoba’s protein value chain – from farmer to processor to customer and all the people in between.

“The vision of ProteinMB is that Manitoba proudly leads Canada and the world as an innovative model for high value, sustainable protein that nurtures and benefits all people, the local environment and the climate,” says ProteinMB’s Managing Director Jillian Einarson. “We drive collaboration of the value chain and the sector through our engagement opportunities surrounding identifying and addressing common issues and opportunities.

On April 19, ProteinMB will host a partnership forum, which is open to anybody who wants to get involved with the implementation of the organization’s protein strategy.

“During this event, we’ll be bringing industry together to delve deeper into protein partnership model. We’ll share different participation opportunities and facilitate discussions around priorities. And then we’ll begin to establish roundtables, sustainable protein consortiums, and working groups. We’ve been created by industry and we’re here to support our industry and empower industry growth.”

ProteinMB is in phase one of its development right now – visit www. proteinmb.ca for more information – but the next stage of its strategy is to tackle initiatives such as increasing trade and access to foreign markets.

The food Manitoba’s pulse and soybean farmers grow is global, political, and affected by and vulnerable to election outcomes. This food is needed and feeds people from all over the world. Refresh your news pages often this growing season. What you grow is part of stories you’ve never dreamt of.