Bioeconomy Gives Agriculture New Lease On Life

The emerging bioeconomy is rewriting agriculture’s contract with society, a senior official with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives told bioengineers meeting in Winnipeg recently.

Daryl Domitruk, director of the Agri-Food Innovation and Adaptation Knowledge Centre for Manitoba Agriculture and Rural Initiatives, said agriculture is often portrayed as “the bad guy” when it comes to environmental and economic issues.

“The perception of agriculture, very often, from an environmental perspective is that farms pollute. From a health perspective that there’s chemicals in them, from an economic perspective that (they rely on) farm payments,” he said.

But agricultural producers are drawing up a third contract with society that focuses on helping to protect natural resources, fighting disease with safe and secure food and providing a range of wealth generating opportunities for the economy.

Domitruk labelled this third contract as the bioeconomy.

“Currently, in terms of our crop residues, for example, a small percentage is used in bioproducts in this third contract,” he said. “We process flax paper, we process hemp textiles but most crop residue in Manitoba is used for bedding and millions of acres of it are now regarded as an element of soil management.”

Domitruk’s talk “Renewable energy from agriculture: repro-filing agriculture as a solution provider in Manitoba” set the tone for the conference, which saw about 100 delegates including students and industry professionals present and discuss various bioengineered alternatives to fossil fuels.

Agriculture in Manitoba has gone through two unofficial contracts with society, Domitruk told the audience. The first contract, about 100 years ago, promised free land and support to pioneers who settled the land while the second contract, in the 1980s when agriculture was in a downturn, promised farm payments to families whose farms didn’t make money.

The bioeconomy involves what Domitruk called value-added chains, which include any processing the raw material needs to go through to be turned into a usable product.

Another key part of the bioeconomy is growing biomass crops that can help create energy, such as trees, which grow particularly well in Manitoba, or using crop residue from food crops, Domitruk said.

Another way of producing energy is to use micro-organisms to help break down waste and turn it into usable forms of fuel.

David Levin, associate professor in the department of biosystems at the University of Manitoba, said the university has already had success adding bacteria to materials ranging from wood pulp to disposable coffee cups and having the bacteria digest the material to produce usable forms of energy.

However, while this process creates potential fuel sources, they are not fully compatible with conventional petroleum fuel, Levin added. Because of the existing infrastructure for petroleum-based fuel, the demand is for what Levin called drop-in fuel, which can be added directly to conventional petroleum fuels.

The drive for alternative fuels is also directly tied to the price of oil. If the price of oil goes down, the push to find alternative fuels will likely stall, he said. But if it remains high or increases, the alternative fuels search will gain momentum.

“That’s going to create the market for the alternatives,” he said.

The conference featured several breakout sessions for participants, including a presentation on several anaerobic digester projects in Ontario by Jake DeBruyn an innovation and new technology engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Similar to Levin’s work, anaerobic digesters take organic solid waste material, including manure and compostable waste, and mix it with bacteria to produce biogas.

DeBruyn said the keys to developing a biogas industry is willingness to innovate to find better solutions, learning from others and strong support from government that goes beyond just handing out grants.

“There’s all this complex technology but we have to do a whole lot to support the sector to actually see it thrive,” he said.

Part of supporting the sector is making sure government regulations aren’t too strict for the finished product. It is, after all, better than the manure and other waste that goes into the digesters.

If a biogas industry is established, independent industry associations must be established, DeBruyn said, so biogas producers can work together more easily. And once an industry is established, the government focus should then shift from funding to training and safety regulations to help it grow, along with long-term incentives for producers to stick with the industry.

Right now Ontario has about 28 operating biogas systems with about a dozen more set to start operation soon.

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