Small Beans? The Future of BC Lentils
By Paul Pryce
With the agreement reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on October 5, 2015, opportunities to expand Canadian agricultural exports to Asia and the Americas will be high on the minds of farmers across the country. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Canadian Pork Council, among others, were quick off the mark identifying prospects for increased meat exports to Japan. But British Columbia could also stand to gain for the agreement and in areas one would least expect, like lentils.
The Lay of the Land in BC
Canada is the world’s leading producer of lentils, accounting for 34.8% of global production on average. Thus far, BC production does not comprise much of that figure, however. In 2011, Saskatchewan farmers were responsible for approximately 79% of total lentil production, while Alberta managed 106,800 tons or barely 10% of the national total. Scarce data is available from that year on lentil production in BC, but Statistics Canada reports that only 4,200 hectares of land in the province was dedicated to lentils and pulse crops, or 0.2% of the more than 2 million hectares used nationally.
That BC has not been a major player in lentil production and exports should come as little surprise. Best suited to dry climes, the humidity of BC would normally make the province ill-suited to growing these crops. However, a recent series of dry, warm summers could indicate a shift to a climate that, despite carrying a potential host of problems for the agriculture industry, could prove ideal for growing lentils. That is not to say that a wholesale shift to lentil production is advisable, but lentils could be an option for farmers rotating crops and seeking a good return on investment.
The Growing Demand for Lentils
That return on investment could be seen in emerging markets, both those covered by TPP and those on the periphery of that massive free trade area. Chile, a TPP member, imports an average of 10,000 to 20,000 tons of lentils each year. Malaysia, another TPP member, consistently imports more than 5,000 tons of lentils each year and this figure is projected to reach 6,500 tons by 2017. Although not included under TPP, Bangladesh is a rapidly growing market for lentils, importing almost 75,000 tons in 2011. With a booming population of 156 million people, Bangladesh is only able to produce half the lentils it consumes, with many varieties of beans providing an important source of protein in the Bangladeshi diet. Tapping into such markets could serve as an impetus for future growth and diversification in the BC agriculture industry.
There is certainly already a connection with Bangladesh to build upon. According to Statistics Canada, Bangladesh received more than $20 million worth of BC vegetables in 2013, becoming the second largest destination market for BC vegetables next to the United States. Although BC has increased the value of its vegetable exports to China tenfold since 2009, the value of exports to Bangladesh went from zero to its currently high value in the same period. Yet, just as it is with lentils, BC is not a major field vegetable-producing province. In 2013, BC farmers produced 58,000 tons of field vegetables as compared to the more than 1 million tons that came from Ontario farms the same year. In terms of greenhouse vegetables—specifically tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers—BC is a force to be reckoned with, accounting for 21% of national production, but these are not products for export to far flung markets like Bangladesh and Malaysia. The fact that BC, despite producing only 3% of Canada’s field vegetables, can become an important source of food security in a large country like Bangladesh shows that the province can punch above its weight, including and perhaps especially when it comes to lentils.
In the case of this crop, the maxim holds true: if you grow it, they will buy it.