A bowl of lentils may look like food to you, but to Carl Potts it looks more like a bowl of opportunity.
"In 2014 we exported more than $3-billion of pulse products [which include lentils] to more than 100 countries," says Mr. Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, which represents about 17,000 growers in that province.
"We've just finished planting and it looks like we're going to be up this year."
The potential for lentils is encouraging, says Kasi Rao, vice-president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and a member of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's Asia advisory council.
"We're going to see increasing activity in the coming decades, and particular staples such as lentils are going to see a surge in demand," he says.
"Saskatchewan already accounts for the bulk of India's imports of lentils, and two-fifths of the Canada-India commodities trade. I think that's only going to grow."
While there are several reasons for this growth potential, at the root is increasing demand. The world is getting more populated, living standards in many parts of the developing world are rising and diets are changing, leading to worldwide demand for foods that were once mostly regional.
At the same time there are also considerable hurdles to boosting Canadian food exports – such as bumps in the road in trade negotiations for deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The 12-nation TPP, still being negotiated, would affect much more than agriculture. It has become a tough issue for Canada because of U.S. objections to the supply management system that protects our beef and poultry farmers.
Canada might be sidelined from this agreement if it maintains supply management, a politically sensitive domestic issue, but one that annoys many of Canada's trading partners.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which is championing the TPP and facing stiff resistance from some fellow Democrats, has warned that Canada may be kicked out of the TPP negotiations if it won't budge on supply management.
This doesn't change the potential for Canada to continue to grab a larger share of the food export market for products that are not supply-managed. Canada and Saskatchewan are already the world's leading supplier of pulses such as lentils and peas, Mr. Potts says.
"The rise of China, India and other emerging markets has dramatically changed the outlook for Canadian farmers and agricultural processors," says Michael Gifford, formerly Canada's chief agricultural trade negotiator.
"Canada's agri-food sector has the potential to become a growth engine for the entire economy," he wrote in Policy Options magazine.
Between 2003 and 2013, Canada's trade in agricultural products grew by more than 80 per cent, according to Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada. This growth was second only to the growth in financial services and insurance and one of the top five fastest-growing export sectors.
The prospects are good for maintaining and expanding this growth. The world's population is expected to increase to more than nine billion by 2050 (more than two billion more than at the beginning of this decade) and to feed everyone, food production will have to increase by 70 per cent.
Jeff Rubin, author and former CIBC chief economist, argues that Canada's food production could become even more important to world markets as climate change brings longer growing seasons.
"The Prairies, once hailed as the breadbasket of the world, could find that description gain renewed currency in the years to come," Mr. Rubin posted in his May 12, 2015 blog. "With climate change set to bring about profound changes to global food production, Canada may come to find itself in something of an unforeseen sweet spot."
Mr. Rao says that, in addition to the major national markets for our food exports, Canadian producers should look beyond the big countries where we traditionally seek markets.
"It's obvious that any global trade and investment strategy should include India, China and Japan. But there's a shift and we should obviously pay attention to the ASEAN countries too," he says, referring to Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Editor's note: In 2014 Canada exported more than $3 billion of pulse products, rather than three billion tonnes, as appeared in a previous version of this article.