The RBC transformative seven

With Canada having to reduce its GHG emissions, the ag industry needs more innovative technologies. So how do we do that?

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

Food security is a big UN goal, but so too is the need to reduce our environmental impact on the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Canada has agreed to put into place the means to reduce our environmental impact—reducing our carbon footprint and GHG levels in the oil and gas industry, the ag industry, and the you-name-it industry.

The goal is to be net zero by the year 2050.

People can scoff all they’d like about the probability of that goal being achieved, but even if we fail, taking the time to have tried will have made the planet a better place to live.

Our ag industry as a whole has been involved in innovations from the moment we broke ground here in Canada.

It’s cliché, but it’s true: the future is now.

The RBC, BCG Centre for Canada’s Future, and Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph have undertaken efforts to help inform and inspire Canadians to see both the urgent need and growing opportunity that will come with more sustainable food systems.

That’s why when we look at RBC’s plan to incentivize Canadian technology we need to pay attention when it says it needs a supportive policy, a well-trained workforce and financing. We must remember that we also need to have some superior marketing to get people—either the general public or the ag businesses—to buy into it 100 percent.

RBC noted that Canadian agriculture produces 10 percent of our national GHGs (greenhouse gases) annually, “its core raw materials—soil, plants, and animals—also hold almost unequaled power to pull emissions out of the atmosphere, where they contribute to climate change.”

Technology is key when unlocking the power of the crop and cutting existing emissions in the process, and that technology needs to be developed through responsible innovation.

The ability to put the new technology to work is also key to helping the economy, the environment, and individual farm operators.

In previous research, RBC said that it discovered that technological solutions could play a major role in cutting up to 40 percent of potential 2050 emissions from Canada’s agricultural sector.

Per the title of this article, RBC has identified seven key innovations or ag techs that if utilized effectively, will help Canada create meaningful emission reductions and allow Canada to not only be a leader but to be the leader in the greening of our planet.

1 – Precision Technology

Agri-retailers know all about the various precision ag technologies, but this is one of the transformative seven, so it bears repeating.

In this case, however, RBC is more specific about one thing in particular—using less fertilizer to gain more output.

As we stand right now with fertilizer technology, nitrogen-based fertilizers sprayed on a field can lead to costly and unproductive fertilizer, and via tilling or plowing, the churned-up soil can release the carbons stored within—releasing it into our atmosphere and contribute to the bad GHG emissions Canada has agreed to lower to get to net-zero.

There is already a plethora of PAg tech available on the market—and besides the initial outlay of capital for a new technology that is unfamiliar to a farm business—sometimes the greatest problem is determining just which technology is right for them.

Auto-steering tractors have been around for decades. Air seeders and soil sensors see a crop seed and will apply fertilizer directly to the seed and only the seed, which saves on fertilizer application but also prevents weeds from taking advantage of misapplied fertilizer. Regenerative ag practices such as reduced tillage help protect soil quality and biodiversity.

RBC said that there is currently about 13 MT of carbon stored in our Canadian soil. Using reduced tillage will increase the amount of carbon stored in our soil—so that it’s not released into our atmosphere and isn’t counted against us negatively in GHG emissions produced. In Saskatchewan, some 80 percent of its farmers use no-till or conservation tillage methods, which will keep carbon in the soil.

There are other ways, we hope, to lower our emissions rates, such as via artificial intelligence (AI), and by using more data-powered robotics to take precision farming to the next level. Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet.

RBC said when compared to other countries, Canada is lacking in its investiture in precision farming technologies. It stated that farmers need to be further convinced the technology will work on their farms.

The report included that: “Private and public sectors can help demonstrate the benefits by establishing sponsored field trials, by setting up carbon markets, and by providing the data points and evidence necessary to prove the technology’s value to farmers. Protecting that farm data will also be key. Given the variance of soil quality and make-up across the country, farmers are more likely to trust demonstrations when they are close to their own operations.”

It should be noted that farmers also like to be assured that whatever data is found on their farm, remain the intellectual property of the farm.

2 – CCUS

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage systems (aka CCUS) are another emissions saver.

Between 2017-2021, RBC said that private equity and investment in Canadian CCUS firms is at $253 million, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the global total is over $2.2 billion.

The problem is that nitrogen fertilizer production uses the combustion of natural gas and its conversion to hydrogen, which creates lots of CO2 (carbon dioxide) that enters the atmosphere. RBC said that there is an estimated 12 MT of emissions caused by fertilizer production annually. This will almost triple to 35 MT by 2050.

No one is saying that fertilizer is bad—certainly not the CCUS companies. They plan to capture these carbon emissions before they enter the atmosphere by getting it straight from the production source.

Some companies offer the reuse of the gases, while others convert them to a liquid and ship them to a storage facility. By 2050, at our current growth rate, Canadian storage facilities will be able to store 7 MT of emissions.

Globally, there are only a total of six fertilizer production facilities that use this technology, which means there is plenty of room to grow this specific type of technology.

The concern at this point is not enough companies are utilizing CCUS, so more infrastructure at the fertilizer production level is required. The financial burden should not be placed solely on the production facility. Financial incentives from all levels of government are required. As well, additional storage facilities to house the emissions will be required, as well as implementing ways to recycle and reuse them.

We are also going to have to determine just where such facilities can be located and ensure that they are protected from natural disasters and physical destruction. We have seen early in January how something as simple as a computer breakdown can cripple the US airways. Could a similar incident cause an unsanctioned emissions release?

The not-in-my-backyard mindset will also have to be looked at, as will legal liabilities if we want to consider increasing our footprint in this innovative landscape.

3 – Anaerobic Digesters

Livestock passing gas has long been a snickering cause for environmental alarm. So, until ag can breed cattle that turn digestive gases into oxygen only, we may come to depend on anaerobic digesters to turn animal waste into something positive.

Like it or not, Canadian cattle are the cause of some 8 MT of methane emissions annually. If things remain as they are now, with an expected increase in cattle head, we could expect to “see” 10 MT of methane emissions by 2050.

Using captured animal manure, crop residue, food waste, and silage, anaerobic digesters turn the foul-smelling gases into renewable energies, such as natural gas, biogas, and electricity.

RBC noted that a by-product from these digesters—i.e. digestate—can be used as an organic fertilizer on fields, or as dairy bedding.

Canada currently has 279 biogas projects that are transforming methane into 196 MW of clean electricity and six million GJ of Renewable Natural Gas (RNG)— the equivalent of more than nine large hydro dams.

That’s pretty good. It’s even more impressive when you realize that as of 2020, Canada only had 45 operational digesters in the ag sector.

Call it lumpy liquid gold, but farmers who have an anaerobic digester can add to their revenue source.

RBC said that although biogas development has mostly been driven by provincial energy and waste management policies, opportunities abound for others to become involved—but noted that there are only 29 projects underway to create more.

Costs for such facilities are high, but clean fuel regulations and a rise in global demand for biofuels should be incentive enough.

4 – Controlled Environment Farming

Known as greenhouse and vertical farming, controlled environment farming is seen by RBC as a keen way to reduce emissions from the ag sector.

Yes, emissions are produced via fertilizer application, but also when land is converted to farming. Generally speaking, the movement of food is a cause of GHG emissions. We use vehicles to transport food crops to the grocery stores or feed crops to the agri-retailers and the customers.

RBC said that if left unaltered, GHG emissions will rise from 4 MT to 24 MT by 2050.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. The Canadian ag and transportation industries aren’t exactly sitting back on their laurels. Canada is moving into the realm of using electric vehicles and hydrogen hybrid fuel cell technologies to provide a cleaner ride.

However, let’s not quibble. Vertical farming uses only 10 percent of the land—per the Columbia Climate School—and requires up to 90 percent less water than conventional farming.

It allows more food to be grown on less land—because we are growing upwards akin to an apartment building.

RBC said that “when matched with the right policies to create incentives to protect land, this creates new opportunities to create wildlife habitat and capture carbon in the soil. But while this tech is viable for microgreens and other vegetables and fruits, it is not currently a feasible option for other major crops such as berries.”

So why don’t we build up?

Zoning. Zoning laws do not yet recognize vertical farming as agriculture. Another reason is that infrastructure can be high, as the vertical ag can use LED lighting akin to hydroponics. This is because something needs to provide light when the sun isn’t being used.

Right now, there are an estimated 5,000 greenhouses and nurseries in Canada, and companies are looking into investing in the possibility of vertical farming. But there are not yet enough incentives from the government to encourage its utilization.

McCain Foods currently has about $65 million invested in such research. The Vancouver-based CubicFarm Systems Corp. produces the technology, selling vertical farming systems to grow salad greens or livestock feed. According to a 2021 Financial Post report, CubicFarm’s Chief Executive Officer Dave Dinesen stated that any new company seeking to become involved in the technology, would need to purchase about five acres of space, and need about $25 million in capital to purchase a system.

5 – Livestock Feed Additives & Supplements

This is all about lowering the amount of methane cows produce.

According to a report from the University of California, Davis, a single cow can belch up to 200 lbs (907 kg) of methane. While methane has a shorter life than carbon dioxide, it is 28x more efficient in warming the planet.

If we add up all of the gases contributed via enteric fermentation, i.e. the digestive process in livestock, Canadian cows alone add some 24 MT of greenhouse gas emissions.

Either we need to figure out a way to capture expelled cow gases at the source—not likely—or we figure out a way to alter a cow’s diet so that less expulsion of gases occurs.

Fortunately, scientists have done that. RBC pointed out that feed additives like 3-NOP (3-nitrooxypropanol), algae, and seaweed supplements can suppress the gut enzyme in cows that triggers the production of methane.

The additives are also able to help the bovines digest food more efficiently. All told, the feed supplements are expected to help cut back methane emissions by 16 MT by the year 2050.

But does this cause yield loss in dairy cattle or affect the animal negatively in other ways? Researchers are still investigating those factors.

What’s the big deal anyway? Well, getting approval for 3-NOP as an everyday additive in cattle feed is tricky. It is approved as a feed additive in Brazil and the EU, but Canada has it classified as a veterinary drug.

As such, Canada believes 3-NOP is not right for every cow, and before such approval is given for everyday use as a feed additive, more research needs to be done. Approval may not be forthcoming for several more years, if at all.

Then there’s the financial cost. Because there is no such GHG tax as there is for carbon, there is no reason for Canadian farmers to even care about cutting methane via feed additives. Yes, there’s an environmental benefit, but the cost should not be endured by the farm business alone.

6 – Agriculture Biotechnology

Better living through chemistry is the ultimate goal of agriculture biotechnology.

Today’s dairy cows produce more milk than their forebears 100 years ago. The same can be said for swine or fish.

Humankind has been utilizing selective breeding for millennia to build better animals or crops. But now, we are also using genetic engineering, gene editing, and tissue culture to speed things along to create a better plant now, rather than 10 seasons in the future.

Biotechnology provides ag with drought tolerance or better taste or scent characteristics. It can also provide more yield, be disease resistant, and produce more or less fat—with the end result of a better end product that is both safe to consume, and easier for farmers to rear or grow.

If you’ve ever utilized canola oil in your kitchen, you’ve used agriculture biotechnology. Canola is a 1960s Canadian ag invention, developed by Saskatchewan and Manitoba plant breeders who created a plant capable of providing quality food-grade oil.

This a wide-open science-based sector. Soil’s too wet or too dry? There’s a solution. Does your soil lack nutrients? Solution. It’s creating a better seed, a better feed, a plant that needs less fertilizer to produce more yield. It’s how you feed a hungry planet without damaging it.

The biggest barrier to investment in Canada, said RBC, are regulations of plants with novel traits, which are more stringent than those of competitors.

A survey of plant breeders conducted by CropLife Canada found that a quarter of plant breeding research was halted after projects were determined to be “novel” and thus, subject to PNT risk assessments and approvals that could cost up to millions of dollars before a product could be commercialized.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents indicated that the PNT regulatory framework needed to be updated to reflect current levels of knowledge. Another 27 percent indicated they conducted field trials outside of Canada to avoid requirements pertaining to PNT varieties.

Is Canada being too cautious? The answer is up for debate.

7 – Cellular Agriculture

Yes, farming causes emissions—be it from cow burps or plain old use of land. But what if scientists could create meat that isn’t meat, or fish that isn’t fish—grown in a lab rather than a farm? Less land is needed, and certainly fewer inputs.

It’s turning yeast, bacteria, cell samples, and fungi into novel forms of proteins.

If we think that sounds horrible, just imagine the first person who ever cracked open an oyster and said they were going to eat that wet, quivering mess. Millenia later, many swear it’s a delicacy, while others wouldn’t go near it even if free money was on the table.

Having said that, we can expect the same disinclination from consumers and media alike concerning food created via cellular agriculture.

Perhaps it’s all about perception. Someone may love the taste of cola but having been recently diagnosed as a Type II diabetic must now change over to a sugar-free version. It’s not done because they want to, but because they have to.

That’s where cellular agriculture may be seen more as a savior than as an option.

Growing food in a lab can have many pluses—no animals were harmed in the manufacture of this steak. Or fewer GHG emissions were produced in this “mock” chicken dish. Or just simply using less water to create a protein-enriched meal.

It creates a moral ambiguity, however. Do we just provide such yeast-created foods for the poor, while the rich continue to dine on animal flesh?

From a practical standpoint, this seems like an easy decision. RBC noted that Canada has a plentiful supply of feedstock, “particularly carbohydrates, starches, and sugars, which could be used for cell-based agriculture products. We currently dispose of leftover starches from peas after their proteins are used to make plant-based meats. This could instead be fed to specially bred micro-organisms such as yeast, which could then be used to make the proteins normally found in dairy products.”

Like any new technology, becoming involved in cellular agriculture is pricey. And then there’s the consumer simply not fully understanding what is being done.

But for whom is it being done? If it is for everyone to utilize as food, then great! Good luck in changing how people eat because that is what cellular agriculture means.

We know that many great things could help humankind. It’s also why the pure concept of communism fails. Everybody is the same? It sounds idyllic, but as we have seen in the existent version of communism, some people are more equal than others.

Again, if cellular agriculture is a way to ensure the starving have food, it’s a good thing—isn’t it? Or is the inability to not have animal protein, for example, showing that some are more equal than others?

Where Do We Go From Here?

The point of all of this is to show that there are many issues facing Canadian agriculture, but that there are many solutions for each issue. We need to invest time, money, and some old-fashioned ingenuity to resolve what ails us.

But, more importantly, RBC’s transformative seven is a rallying cry for Canada to take the lead in ag technology.

Funding is key, as is getting Canada to speed up its decision-making process when it comes to new and innovative technologies.

This is a double-edged sword, of course. Too lax on the checks and balances, and we could have an unsafe scenario hitting the Canadian consumer’s dinner plate.

Too hard, and we risk Canadian ingenuity falling behind other countries.

RBC said that Canadian ag needs to have a central funding body for research and development, indicating that… much of the most promising and advanced areas of Canadian agricultural research don’t fit within current funding categories.

“A more centralized system, operating in close partnership with academia and the private sector, such as in the United States Department of Agriculture, could develop a more holistic, nationwide view of where support and innovation are needed. The leadership shown by federal governments in creating the innovation superclusters provides a playbook for how Canada can supercharge agri-food research and innovation.”

The report suggested that we enable the commercialization of existing research—done by increasing funding for university tech transfer offices and programs. We need to make it easier for work to be commercialized, even if it means streamlining crop science regulations that currently require extensive (and expensive) trials.

Other solutions include having ag and tech taught within post-secondary schools, which may mean rebranding ag as a cool career choice.

Perhaps the biggest goal that needs to be achieved is Canada reinventing itself to the world. We shouldn’t just be that clean country filled with polite people who like hockey, skiing, and salmon. Rather, we need to reverse the brain drain by quickly becoming a technological destination.

We need to create our own Silicon Valley of ag-tech. Why not? What’s stopping us?

We need to create ways for companies and private investors to succeed in ag technologies.

We also need to be transparent with the consumers. Rather than making farmers pay to reduce GHG emissions, we need more incentives to help them realize this goal. And there needs to be a sharing of the risk. Risk is necessary for success.

Canadian farmers are being asked to shoulder the burden of new technologies. But what if it doesn’t work as well as it was imagined to? Governments need to help farm businesses share the risk in equipment buybacks for fails, as well as supplement farms when yields unfortunately drop.

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