When Pam Ismael founded the University of Minnesota's Plant Protein Innovation Center in 2018, she had her hands full trying to spread awareness of it. But things have changed.

"I started out two years ago calling people and inviting people to come to meetings and pursuing them to join. (Now) I've reached a point where I'm overwhelmed by the amount of attention the center is getting, and the companies are coming to us," said Ismael, the center's director.

"Everybody wants to be part of it and not be left behind. It's growing at a healthy pace," she said.

The center is based on two basic premises: The world's need for sustainably based protein is growing, as is demand for plant-based protein. Consumers are looking for more protein in their diets overall, sometimes for more plant-based protein in particular, and industry wants to meet that demand, she said.

The center, which Ismael said is the first of its kind, seeks "to bring industry and academics together and work on research topics that are interdisciplinary (and) that can bring to industry and the consumer new and nutritious plant protein products and foods."

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Pam Ismael, director of University of Minnesota's Plant Protein Innovation Center. (Contributed photo)
Pam Ismael, director of University of Minnesota's Plant Protein Innovation Center. (Contributed photo)
The research includes plant breeding and genetics, agronomics, processing and commercialization and marketing. The work "spans the entire value food," and seeks to have a positive impact on the environment, she said.

The center's growing staff consists of 24 interdisciplinary researchers working in labs and greenhouses to develop new protein crops from sustainable sources. As the range of research suggests, the staff includes plant breeders, geneticists, agronomists, food scientists, microbiologists and specialists in commercialization and economics.

"You name it, we have it. All the fields," Ismael said.

There's plenty of work for them. "A lot of basic research needs to be done, and that's the goal of the center. We have to work from different angles to make it successful and benefit the consumers, benefit the industry, benefit the environment and benefit the farmer," she said.

Asked about the center's successes so far, Ismael noted that two years is a relatively short period of time in ag research. "We have so many ongoing projects," several of which are coming close to commercialization, she said.

Research involving camelina, an oilseed, is among the projects closest to the finish line. The work includes getting the right blend of oil and meal, yields and practicality for farmers to grow, among other factors, she said.

Some other crops with which the center is involved: winter and spring peas, flax, alfalfa beans and hemp.

But the center's greatest success so far has been the relationships it has established with partners, Ismael said.

The center now works with 26 partners that include big names such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg's and Minnesota-based General Mills and Cargill. Current research focuses on 17 projects that include "impact of cold plasma treatment on pea protein structural and functional characteristics" and "protein-flavor interactions in food matrices."

Though based on the U of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, the campus also draws on researchers from outside the University, both domestically and globally, Ismael said.

"The idea of the center is not to be only a University of Minnesota or Minnesota center — we really hope to be a global platform," she said.

Is it competition?

Some in Upper Midwest agriculture, especially livestock and dairy producers, worry that plant-based protein food products threaten meat and dairy consumption.

"I say, meat consumption and dairy consumption is not going to go away. What we're facing now is a challenge to face the growing population," Ismael said. "So we have to think about regenerative agriculture. We have to be smart."

"The meat eaters will always be meat eaters. And you have those niche group of people that are just looking for plant-based (protein). So there should be a way that we can live in harmony and synergy to protect our land, so that we can still produce animals and can still have our dairy at the same time that we have options, healthy options, for the population no matter what their choices are," she said.