Biorefinery Glas: A Brighter Future for Irish Farmers

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EU policy makers want to eliminate waste and maximise resources as part of their climate action plans. Developing a circular bioeconomy will be key. We explore what this could mean for farmers in the future.

By Elaine Kavanagh.

It’s been a tough time for Irish farmers. Poor profits in the beef sector, the uncertain impact of the ongoing Brexit saga, and concerns about the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy point to the need for a new approach. Could a circular bioeconomy provide a more profitable model of farming?

WHAT IS A CIRCULAR BIOECONOMY?

The bioeconomy refers to the use of renewable biological resources from land and sea to produce food, materials and energy. These renewable resources include crops, forests, fish, animals and microorganisms. The bioeconomy incorporates and connects many elements – from farmers and fishermen to industrial food producers and manufacturers.

Until quite recently, residues and waste products generated in food production or manufacturing were largely discarded. But the need for climate action and sustainability are driving a fresh, innovative approach. A circular bioeconomy uses renewable resources in ways that ensure they stay in the system for as long as possible, while minimising waste.

The EU has placed sustainability and circularity at the heart of its plans for the bioeconomy. This new emphasis means that residues generated in farming will increasingly be converted into useful, high-value products like chemicals, animal feed or bioenergy. By tapping into these new markets, farmers will be able to generate extra income.

This circular approach offers huge potential to address many of the problems facing the planet. It can help us to maximise resources, reduce fossil fuel dependency and feed growing populations more efficiently. For instance, new technologies in the livestock sector are increasingly facilitating the conversion of food wastes into animal feed. The EU estimates that land saved on animal grazing in this way could potentially feed three billion people.

Plus, it’s an opportunity to create jobs. The EU thinks one million new jobs could be created in this emerging sector by 2030, many of them in Europe’s rural and coastal communities. A circular bioeconomy could inject a new lease of life into many parts of the Irish countryside. And with the promise of extra income for farmers, it seems like a win-win situation.

GOVERNMENT PLANS FOR THE BIOECONOMY

Our own government has certainly taken up the gauntlet thrown down by the EU. Its 2018 National Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy outlined a vision of Ireland as a global leader in this area. The government wants Ireland to move beyond merely meeting targets for carbon emissions towards the development of a truly sustainable, circular bioeconomy.

Research and innovation are crucial in finding new ways to harness resources, and government has invested significantly in this area. It provided €22 million for BiOrbic, Ireland’s National Bioeconomy Research Centre, established in 2018 to discover new ways of converting marine and agrifood residues into valuable products. In addition, €5.75 million has been made available for the National Bioeconomy Campus in Lisheen, Co Tipperary. The campus, which has been described as the IFSC of the bioeconomy, is currently being developed by the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation.

Teagasc has also been busy. In 2017, it published results of a two-year research project called BioÉire, aimed at finding new opportunities for converting residues into usable products. Its report highlighted a need to focus on the agriculture, marine and forestry sectors in the short and medium term. The conversion of dairy side streams into new food products and the conversion of agricultural waste into bioenergy were identified as potential areas for development.

The BioÉire project also highlighted some concerns, such as policy coherence, sufficient scale, international competition, feasibility, market availability, consumer acceptance, environmental sustainability, and competition with food production. Clearly, there’s still a long way to go in developing a circular bioeconomy that works for everyone.

BIOREFINERY GLAS

Despite the concerns raised by Teagasc, the government thinks that a circular bioeconomy can particularly benefit the agri-food and maritime sectors. According to its National Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy, these sectors can generate extra income by diversifying their product base – and deal with uncertainties posed by Brexit into the bargain. So, can a circular bioeconomy really benefit farmers and the environment at the same time?

James Gaffey is a researcher at IT Tralee who wants to maximise the bioeconomy for farmers. He coordinates an innovative project called Biorefinery Glas, funded by Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine under the Rural Development Programme. This small-scale biorefinery is one of the first European biorefinery initiatives aimed at changing farmers’ roles from suppliers of biomass to producers of finished and semi-finished products.

Demonstrations of the biorefinery took place on farms in West Cork during the summer of 2019. According to James, collaboration with farmers was vital; they lent credibility to the project in a way that wouldn’t be possible with researchers alone.

The biorefinery spent a week on each participating farm, meaning farmers gave up a week of their time to facilitate it – that’s no small ask for a busy farmer. James said the research team were lucky to work with these farmers, all members of the Carbery Coop.

The farm demonstrations were very successful, with participating farmers promoting the biorefinery to other farmers. But, it’s still very early days for Biorefinery Glas. No costings are available yet because the project’s present focus is research. At this stage, it aims to familiarise farmers with the biorefining process and benchmark its output against similar products currently available on the market.

HOW IT WORKS

The biorefinery converts freshly harvested grass into a range of products. First, it separates the  grass into press cake (an optimised feed for cattle) and juice. Research in Denmark and the Netherlands has shown that this press cake generates a 25% reduction in nitrogen outputs for a comparable milk production. This could prove extremely useful in helping Ireland to lower its agricultural emissions. The Biorefinery Glas researchers expect to replicate these results in their own research.

Press cake and juice is produced from the fresh grass as part of a circular bioeconomy

Three products are generated from the juice: a pig feed which can replace imported soybean, saving on transport costs; prebiotics, which will be compared to those currently on the market; and finally, biogas. The biorefining process ensures maximum value is extracted from the materials before the biogas is produced.

James explained that a cascading use of resources – where energy production is the last part of the chain – is essential, because it allows for multiple use of a single resource, ultimately adding value for suppliers. Since biogas is the last possible use of the fresh grass, Biorefinery Glas prioritises alternative uses first.

According to James, this cascading model of use should be a no-brainer. However, energy-only subsidies can act as a hindrance because they encourage the production of single elements in a supply chain. James feels that current policy focuses too much on creating markets for bioenergy; incentivising specific areas in this way is a missed opportunity because resources are not utilised in other ways before being converted into bioenergy.

Industry has realised that a cascading model of use is not only better for the environment, it’s also more profitable. Glanbia, for example, is participating in a €32 million EU-funded project called AgriChemWhey. This industrial-scale biorefinery converts dairy by-products into lactic acid, which can be used to manufacture biodegradable plastics and bio-based fertiliser.

THE KEY FOR THE FUTURE

In the cascading model, waste becomes profit. And James wants farmers to be facilitated in engaging with this model. He would like to see farmers moving up the supply chain so that they become bioprocessers rather than just suppliers. “It’s all about adding value,” he says. “Currently farmers are either at the lowest point in the supply chain, or they are absent from it completely, but they hold the key for the future.”

Biorefinery Glas is a hopeful first step. However, James thinks there are several potential models to ensure a place for farmers on the bioeconomy supply chain. One possibility is a co-op approach, with a central bioprocesser along the lines of the old-style creamery. Alternatively, farmers could invest in bioprocessing machines themselves. This would require financing, but James thinks funding could be provided at EU level. He points to the European Commission’s 2017 Young Farmers Initiative as an example; this €1 billion loan package was set up specifically to help young farmers who couldn’t access finance elsewhere.

In a third possible scenario, a contractor could buy biomass from famers and give them a return. James suggests that simpler measures to integrate farmers within the bioeconomy could be implemented with relative ease, such as involving farmers in the densification of biomass or the establishment of biomass trade centres. “It’s all about adding value to the supply chain,” he says.

There’s money to be made from the things we used to discard – but we need the right approach so that the circular bioeconomy works to everyone’s benefit. With people like James working hard to make sure farmers receive a fair share of the profits, the future could look very bright indeed for Irish farming.

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