At the intersection of agricultural production and high tech is biocleantech, an industry that promises jobs and new markets.
Canada’s commitment to fighting climate change is strong. It took an active role in negotiation of the Paris Accord, made significant investments through the 2016 and 2017 federal budgets and created a detailed pan-Canadian plan that links climate change mitigation to innovation and clean growth. To meet our goals on climate change, it is important to reduce the release of ancient carbons from fossil fuels and to enhance the removal of carbon that is already in the atmosphere.
With their long history of management of biogenic carbon — carbon that comes from living things such as plants — farmers have an important role to play in helping Canada to make the shift to a lower-carbon economy. By adopting better farming practices like reduced tillage and 4R Nutrient Stewardship, producers can reduce emissions associated with land and fertilizer management, while improving their economic efficiency. The crops that they grow draw carbon from the atmosphere and convert it to the kernels of corn, wheat, canola and soybeans that are sold into the global commodities market. The remainder of the carbon that the plants have captured in their leaves, stems and roots is either returned to the atmosphere through decay at the end of the growing season or stored in soils.
Historically, these crop leftovers, or residues, have offered limited value to farmers, but they can be gathered and their biogenic carbon converted to the transportation fuels, heat, electricity, chemicals and materials that would typically be made from fossil fuels. So, as international trade discussions focus on global markets, import and export balances and commodity competition, agricultural producers are stepping up to help Canada reshape its domestic economy by feeding the biocleantech revolution.
And Canada has lots of biomass residues. In fact, taken together, Canada has more biomass resources from agriculture, forest product wastes and organic municipal wastes than any other country. An Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada study showed that some 48 million dry tonnes of agricultural residues could be available for biocleantech applications each year. As farmers embrace the use of high-yielding crops, even more residues are produced, ensuring a strong and steady future supply. When combined with residues from forestry and municipal wastes, an estimated 120 million dry tonnes of biomass could be available annually in Canada — a target number that is less than half the biomass already used in the United States.
Modern commercial biomass conversion technologies use existing facilities to turn agricultural wastes into fuels, heat and electrical energy. Such technologies are proven and effective and can be economically deployed in Canada.
How could we use this ample biomass supply to address emissions? Canada’s vast size, chilly weather and resource-based economy result in a unique greenhouse gas emissions profile, with large and growing emissions from heavy transportation, space heating, and extraction and refining of energy resources. Each of these processes is highly dependent upon existing and expensive infrastructure. Very-low-carbon alternatives such as wind and solar are expensive because they must abandon this older infrastructure and start over. But modern commercial biomass conversion technologies use existing facilities to turn agricultural wastes into fuels, heat and electrical energy. Such technologies are proven and effective and can be economically deployed in Canada without stranding the infrastructure we have. For example, biofuels distributed through pipelines and fuelling stations to run existing combustion-engine fleets can create a bridge from the carbon-intense fossil fuel economy of the past to a new, electrified fleet as individual cars and trucks reach the end of their life span and are ready for replacement.
Agricultural residues can also be made into higher-value chemicals and materials. Sarnia’s BioAmber is the world’s largest manufacturer of bio-succinic acid, which is used in the production of recyclable plastics, spandex, paints and pharmaceuticals. Instead of the traditional fossil fuel resources used to manufacture succinic acid, BioAmber uses corn stover — the leftover stalks and leaves — as a biogenic carbon source. A group of Ontario corn farmers, the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative, harvest corn stover in addition to their kernel corn crop. By selling their stover to BioAmber, these farmers reap a second income in the same production cycle, and BioAmber is able to produce a high-value commodity chemical that is not derived from fossil fuels.
Modern biocleantech occurs at the intersection of agricultural production and high tech, using the tools of precision agriculture, remote sensing, GIS and mapping technologies, big data, sensors and measurement technologies, drones and remotely operated vehicles. Use of high technology results in efficient and accurate plant-based carbon production, conversion and consumption, with the ultimate goal of releasing very little carbon to the atmosphere while contributing to a wide range of products and services. This approach also requires a skilled workforce with permanent positions, contributing to sustainable livelihoods. The modern bioenergy and bioproducts sectors generate more renewable energy jobs than any other alternative energy industry globally, with many jobs located rurally.
Use of high-tech tools is also necessary to protect the environment by ensuring that the soils and water needed for biomass production are managed appropriately; these tools are an important part of moving to a lower-carbon economy in a cost-effective manner. Agriculture has an important role to play in helping Canada to meet its domestic goals in reducing carbon emissions, and the new markets for agricultural biomass products will help farmers to stabilize their businesses in the face of international market uncertainties.
This article is part of the Canadian Agriculture at the Cutting Edge special feature.
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