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Final Thoughts: Fueling the bioeconomy with agricultural residues

How the Biomass Canada Research Cluster will boost ag-biomass


October 31, 2019
By Dr. Donald Smith, director and CEO, BioFuelNet Canada

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Dr. Donald Smith

According to the Bioeconomy Council, bioeconomy is defined as the knowledge-based production and use of biological resources to provide products, processes and services in all economic sectors within the frame of a sustainable economic system.

It is a new paradigm focused on sustainably using biological resources (agricultural residues and biological wastes) to produce food, energy and bioproducts. Canada is a steward of biological resources. Considering agricultural residues and the major crops grown in the country, including cereals, oilseeds and pulses, up to 48 million dry tonnes per year of agricultural residues could be available, providing enough feedstock to make renewable fuels that could reduce Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50 megatonnes (MT) of CO2 equivalent per year (eq./y.).

The Biomass Canada Research Cluster aims to fit aspects of Canadian agriculture into the growing bioeconomy by utilizing the unexploited potential stored in millions of tonnes of residual materials. It will improve agricultural producers’ incomes by adding value to agricultural wastes and production from marginal lands, reduce production costs and increase yields for biofuels and associated high-value bioproducts by improving the processes and technologies involved in their production. It will also improve the Canadian agricultural sector’s overall sustainability by reducing GHG emissions and helping Canadian crop production systems adapt to climate change.

This cluster will also investigate economic aspects of marginal land, as well as determine the actual production costs and value of specific energy crops and crop residues through field demonstrations. The total value of the cluster is $12.8 million over five years (2018-2023), thanks to funds from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and other partners.

Overall, the Biomass Canada Research Cluster aims to improve the bio-based economy by developing and using cutting-edge technologies and market opportunities for biomass, bioenergy and bioproducts, benefitting agricultural producers across Canada, including in the northern regions.

The expected outcomes from this cluster fall into four general areas:

  1. Increased knowledge about utilizing crop residues and other agricultural production that currently have no purpose, such as greenhouse biomass waste, for combined heat and power generation, and improved techniques for using this in northern-Canadian locations.
  2. Increased understanding of biomass crop yield and supply, as well as improved technologies and processes for converting biomass to various bioproducts, including biofuels and associated high-value bioproducts.
  3. Better knowledge of business models and supply chain logistics for biomass and bioproducts.
  4. Increased knowledge and technology transfer to agricultural operators who wish to engage in biomass value chains.

Expanding Canada’s bioeconomy can also help address challenges associated with employment and industrial activity in the nation’s resource-dependent communities. Employment in the agricultural sector has dropped by over 10 per cent since this century began.

Canada has about nine million hectares of marginal lands suitable for biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, miscanthus or coppiced poplar, which could generate up to $400 per hectare in additional revenues and reduce GHG emissions by another 29 MT CO2 eq./y. This cluster will investigate the economic aspects of marginal land and determine the actual production costs and value of specific energy crops and residues through field demonstrations. The investigations will help drive effective biomass production, increasing profits from food commodities and increasing marginal lands.

By way of an example, the cluster will further develop signal molecules produced by microbes in the plant microbiome, which have been proven to dramatically help plants deal with stress. These signal compounds help with stresses including drought, high temperature and salinity, conditions likely to become more prevalent as climate change conditions develop. Consequently, these microbes have the potential to develop more climate change-resilient agricultural systems.

To fully establish the Canadian bioeconomy, we need to develop a good understanding of each component involved in energy crop production on Canada’s marginal lands, including area, costs and benefits of production, and the environmental impacts of the resultant land use change.

Overall, the Biomass Canada Research Cluster will play a key role in integrating the Canadian agricultural sector into the developing Canadian bioeconomy, establishing flourishing labour markets, contributing to reductions in GHG emissions and creating a more sustainable and climate change resilient agricultural sector. •