In a world of uncertainty, Canada’s milling industry remains stable in both demand and growth.
Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian National Millers Association (CNMA), says grain flour (particularly wheat) is expected to stay a staple food in Canada. As well, he says increases in domestic consumption are possible despite changes in regulatory, environmental, and consumer perception challenges.
Why it matters: Stable flour markets provide good sales opportunities for grain producers, but for demand to grow domestically, public perceptions must change.
There were 48 active wheat mills in Canada in 2010, reported Harrison during a presentation given during C & M Seeds’ virtual wheat industry day. As of this year, CNMA members comprised 24 “industrial scale” milling operations, plus a handful of others for different grains.
Combined, he says, Canadian mills ground 3.2 million tons of wheat in 2019. The amount of flour produced closely follows per-capita flour consumption, which currently stands at 60.2 kilograms per year — marginally larger than consumption during the 1970s.
“By 2000 to 2001, per-capita consumption increased, and subsequently has declined. Consumers are not eating more wheat flour than 50 years ago,” Harrison says.
“Wheat grind and flour production track that consumption trend pretty closely.”
He added that the spike in the early 2000s appeared to be curtailed, in part, by the subsequent widespread popularity of fad diets, such as low-gluten or gluten-free diets.
Overall, it translates to a lack of substantial long-term market growth, though Harrison says this has not stopped the milling industry from modernizing production and making headway in some regions.
Wheat flour is consumed in a vast range of products, and by a highly diverse array of customers. As a consequence, Harrison says major milling wheat classes need to be versatile enough to make hundreds of products from a single class. This is a challenge to manufacturers.
He also says increasingly complex regulatory and customer-driven food safety requirements combined with just in time delivery models, fosters multi-layered production, storage and freight challenges. Safety issues in wheat production, too, will continue to be the dominant issue, although a solvable one.
“There has been considerable progress made in terms of breeding wheat with resistance to fusarium,” says Harrison.
Foodborne illness risk is a more recent factor on the milling industry’s radar. Harrison says the presence of “living human pathogens” will be seen more frequently in wheat and wheat products.
“Because of that consumer, food safety awareness will be more important than in the past.”
Harrison says he is confident wheat-based foods will continue to be staples in Canada for the foreseeable future. North American and Canadian demand will be driven by population growth, with increases of .5 per cent to one per cent growth expected annually.
“We can only hope the consumers who have become reacquainted with baking at home in recent months, that those habits will become ingrained and continue.”
Another .5 per cent growth is possible too, but it relies on consumers viewing wheat flour differently.
“In order for that to happen consumers would need to look at milled grain products as a source of plant protein and dietary fibre, and recognize the importance of fibre in the diet,” says Harrison. “This is a very difficult sell and it’s been a challenge for the last 20 years.”
Overall, though, he believes wheat and the milling industry in Canada has “a pretty bright future.”