Peas and lentils sitting idle on Canadian farms are increasingly going to the dogs -- literally.

Canadian pulse growers and processors are turning to the pet-food market as an emerging source of growth as swelling global supplies weigh on prices and import tariffs crimp demand in India, the world’s biggest consumer. Use of the high-protein, gluten-free vegetarian staples is surging in the pet sector as owners are increasingly seeking grain-free diets for their furry friends.

“It’s really a perception of the owner of pets: ‘If gluten-free is good for me, then gluten-free is good for my pet’,” said David Nobbs, managing partner of Canpulse Foods in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which shipped 15,000 metric tons of pulse crops to the U.S. for use in the pet food sector in 2017.

The gluten-free trend is spilling over from human food where more consumers are increasingly choosing foods “free from” everything from gluten to dairy amid a push toward healthier eating.

Pulse crops m-- including dry peas, lentils and chickpeas -- are high-protein legumes that can be consumed whole, ground into flours or separated into protein, fiber and starch to be added into processed foods. Demand for the ingredients from the human food sector is growing as companies are adding them to everything from breakfast cereals to snacks.

In a five-year span, the use of pea ingredients in pet food grew 10 per cent a year and is expected to continue to rise 5 percent annually, according to a 2016 Euromonitor study completed for Pulse Canada, a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based industry group that represents the nation’s growers, traders and processors. The market is a potential home for some of Canada’s production, said Jackie Tenuta, director of market development for Pulse Canada.

Embedded Image

Canada exports about 40,000 tons of yellow peas, red lentils and chickpeas to the U.S. to be processed into pet food every year, up from virtually zero a few years ago, Nobbs said. That amount will continue to climb as the lower prices of pulse crops makes them more attractive to food companies to include in products and consumer preference for grain-free items grows, he said.

The sector is a bright spot in a global market that’s been hit by sagging prices. While pulse crops enjoyed the highest prices ever as recently as 2016, farmers have since expanded production, creating a glut. In Canada, the number of acres devoted to lentils more than doubled in the past decade while pea plantings have risen 8 per cent in the past five years, government data show.

India’s imposition of steep import tariffs on the legumes has made the situation worse, virtually halting exports from Canada, the top exporter. Red-lentil prices in Saskatchewan have plunged 68 per cent since January 2016, while yellow-pea prices have tumbled 41 per cent, according to data from grain marketing firm Farmco.

People are increasingly seeking out foods from local farmers and growers and “we see similar patterns when it comes to feeding our cats and dogs,” said Frank Burdzy, president and chief executive officer of Champion Petfoods, which sells the Acana and Orijen brands. While the bulk of the company’s foods are still made from meat, some of its dog products contain pulses, including whole red lentils and chickpeas.

“The humanization of pets is really a trend,” Murad Al-Katib, chief executive officer of Saskatchewan-based AGT Food and Ingredients, one of the world’s biggest exporters of pulses, said in an interview in Winnipeg. “You’re seeing the development of the pet-food industry going from just home-fed scraps to more planned meals in stages of pets’ lives.”