03/14/2016 11:27 EDT | Updated 03/14/2016 11:59 EDT

'Protein Highway' Project Hopes To Promote Prairie Crops

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Harvesting lentils, Vanguard, Saskatchewan, Canada

PIERRE, S.D. — Officials in three Canadian provinces and six northern U.S. states are launching an effort to brand the region as the potential provider of protein to the world.

The "Protein Highway'' project aims to encourage scientists to work together and share information on protein-rich crops, said Kevin Kephart, South Dakota State University's vice-president for research and economic development.

That could lead to research that would aid farmers and also help entrepreneurs take new food products to market, he said.

"There's no place on the globe that can produce as much protein as we can,'' Kephart said.

Canadian researchers David Gauthier and Larry Sernyk estimate the demand for animal protein will double by 2040 as the world's population increases.

That should result in more demand for high-protein plant products to feed the animals being raised for meat. More people also likely will need to get their protein from plants and fish.

"There's a lot of opportunity,'' said Jamshed Merchant, the Canadian consul general based in Minneapolis.

High-protein crops such as lentils, dry beans and dry peas have great potential throughout the "Protein Highway'' region, which encompasses Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta north of the border and the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana and Iowa south of the border, the Canadian researchers said.

Another project that could benefit is Prairie Aquatech, a company headed by a pair of SDSU scientists that's looking for ways to use plant-based food to raise fish.

The Protein Highway concept could also increase demand for farm products in the region and lead to a more diverse array of crops to choose from during planting season, according to Merchant.

"Your choices become quite large,'' he said. "It's just like diversifying your portfolio.''

Obstacles include a lack of processing facilities and the need to convince the government to offer insurance for new crops.

"This is why we need to get to work,'' Kephart said.

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