The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 025

The First Sixteen - A podcast from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 025 - Turning manure into gold

"Waste is not waste. It's just misplaced resources". That is according to Rajinikanth Rajagopal and the team of researchers at the Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre. This episode explores AAFC's cutting-edge biodigester and how the team is perfecting a process to convert manure, slurry and other agricultural residues into high-value bioenergy and bioproducts – all adapted to the Canadian climate and livestock sector. As well, we look at this initiative through the eyes of Mauricio Alanís, Director of Sustainability Strategy and Partnerships at Maple Leaf Foods. His company is interested in the technology and AAFC's expertise as it could all play an important role in Maple Leaf Foods' sustainability journey.


Mauricio: Proving this out in Canada, I think would be game changing. I think it would demonstrate to the industry that this is indeed possible in the Canadian climate with, for example, swine manure in our case, but potentially co digesting with other manure sources and other feedstock sources and do so in a profitable way that actually has an impact, a measurable impact, as AAFC will help us determine a quantifiable, measurable impact on the environment, on our operations and on the industry.

Sara: Welcome to the First 16. I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk: And I am Kirk Finken.

Sara: Proving out a new idea or an improvement on an old one in this sector can be a long hard slog. You know there is something there and you go at it, hopefully with lots of help. Often building on work of others that have come before you have done.

Its like pushing a heavy rock up a hill, hoping for a grade change, some momentum or some others to come push with you.

Kirk: That is where we find both of our guests today. In the middle of large challenging projects. Projects that are helping this sector become more sustainable by reducing it's carbon footprint.

You know you can hear it in his voice. Mauricio Alanis, who we heard at the top of the episode there is the Director of Sustainability Strategy & Partnerships at Maple Leaf Foods and he…he is excited.

And as we get started I do feel the need to address the effluent in the room here. The ideas we are talking about today are fresh but the main subject matter….not so much. So put your boots on.

Sara: Right, we are wading into the world of anaerobic digestion. A method used to convert manure, slurry and other agricultural residues into bioenergy and bio products with economic value all while reducing green house gas emissions. vLets remember a slogan shared with us by our other guest Dr. Rajinikanth Rajagopal, Raj for short a research scientist at AAFC's Sherbrook research centre.

Raj: Yeah, I think the one slogan waste is not waste, but misplaced resources. So the slogan motivated me to continue with the work is this.

Kirk: Well said. Raj will help us understand anaerobic digestion and share with us some of the newest developments and refinements to the technology he and the team at the Sherbrook Research centre have been working on.

Sara: And Mauricio gives us a look into Maple Leafs sustainability journey, how anaerobic digestion could work into their plans and gives us a really good sense of the challenges they face when trying to deploy these technologies at scale.

Sara: So we start on the ground and I guess a little in the dark. Raj….what is a bio digester?

Raj: Yeah. So a bio digester is a closed container where no oxygen enters into it. And so the anaerobic microorganism which are naturally available, And so what we do is in a controlled environment, we transform or biodegrade organic waste into methane and carbon dioxide.

Sara: And the Methane is captured?

Raj: Methane is a greenhouse gas only when you let it emit out to the atmosphere. So when you know, when you have a manure storage tank, you let it store the manure during different periods you emit methane that is dangerous to the environment. But when we collect them using a controlled system that we're talking about anaerobic digestion, you collect the methane. And this methane is used for, you know, for creating energy, right? So we collect it and store it in a different form, gas form, and then we use them for other downstream applications.

Kirk: Can you tell us what makes the digester technology you and your team are working on unique?

Raj: We have been developing two important technology concerning anaerobic digestion. One is a liquid, but another is a solid digestion. So the liquid part is a mature technology.

We have been developing solid digesters. So we went up to a pilot scale, but not into the commercial scale level. The major difference between these two is like we wanted to treat the waste as is.

It was designed to treat manures produced within our Center, including the effluent from swine sector and dairy complexes. In addition to this, our digester is able to treat silage that is not suitable for animal consumption. So the capacity of our digester is about 300 meter cubed and can able to treat a volume of about 6000 meters per year. So this is a unique bio digester that has a possibility to operate at low temperature. This means that between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius.

Sara: What would the advantage of a lower temperature be?

Raj: Low temperature has some advantages. For example, it has a path to energy balance adapted to the Canadian climatic conditions, and it has a potential to treat nitrogen rich organic matter, for example, swine manure or chicken manure. They are rich in nitrogen. So around the world, mostly mesophilic operation, which means that the temperature range from 35 degrees to 45 degrees Celsius are quite popular. It is suitable for tropical countries. But when we talk about Canadian climatic conditions, low temperature, anaerobic digester like our Sherbrook bio digester is one such example, can answer the climatic conditions and also has an advantage to treat high nitrogen waste, such as pig manures and chicken manures.

Sara: Beyond the gas what else can be used after the process?

Raj: The biogas is one component that is the end product of the bio digestion process. So this biogas they can use for a local heating, room heating, bio digester heating, anything that they would like to have on that farm. But the interesting component is the other bio products, which is like a fertilizer value digestate, which you get at the end of the digestion process. So this is a we call it digestate. This means that the end product of the digestion process, this digestate has a fertilizer value.

Kirk: Why would it be important to develop this type of technology in Canada?

Raj: Because the first thing, the climate is not the same. The second thing is that the crops are the manures produced here. The feed, for the animals are different. So we have to develop the technology that's suitable for our environment our food system.

Kirk: These are technologies that solve present problems and also future problems. Speaking of our environment and food system. Maple Leaf Foods has actually come knocking at the door for the advice and expertise of both Raj and his colleagues as they continue to improve the sustainability of the company.

Sara: And for more on this we turn back to our conversation with Mauricio. To start Mauricio can you give us an overview of Maple Leaf Foods?

Mauricio: Sure. So I'll maybe I'll start off by saying that Maple Leaf Foods is a carbon neutral food company on a purposeful journey to raise the good in food. What I want to highlight here is our intention is to be, our vision, to be the most sustainable protein company on earth. This is a vision that has been inked to into our DNA now through our senior leadership team, our CEO, Michael McCain and it's a purposeful journey that is really energizing for us internally. We have north of 12000 employees, a big portion of those are our manufacturing facilities.

We have operations, manufacturing operations all across Canada, a few facilities in the United States as well. And we've really embarked on this journey basically since 2019, since we set our science based targets. And when we became the world's first major carbon neutral food company in 2019.

Maple Leaf Foods is a vertically integrated food company we have ownership of about 40% of all the pigs that we process. So we oversee those, those pigs. They're all those barns are virtually 100% of those are based out of Manitoba. We also contract about 60% of all the pigs that we process, and those are from third party contract growers also, virtually all of them located in Manitoba. We also own some hatcheries from a poultry standpoint, but then we sell them off to farmers and then farmers actually grow them and then we buy them back. So that's sort of how we are vertically integrated. We are not vertically integrated beyond that. So we don't actually own any of the cropland that produces the feed for, for these animals.

If I want to get a little technical, they are what we consider our scope three emissions.

Kirk: We sure can. Can you talk a little about the different emissions scopes?

Mauricio: Sure, so in the sustainability world. When mapping out the major source of our emissions. So let me take a step back. Maple Leaf Foods became a carbon neutral food company in 2019, and part of the way to do this is to first and foremost understand where our emissions lie. Understand every single bit of emissions sources across all of our operations and our value chain. And in the sustainability world, just like in the accounting world, there are sort of rules and accounting terminology to try and help categorize all of these emissions better.

And so in comes, the scope one, scope two in scope three terminology, scope one, emissions are basically all of the emissions that are derived from operations within our control, within our operational or financial control.

So any emissions coming out of our manufacturing facilities, are scope one emissions, if we own trucks that transport our animals, the emissions from those trucks are our scope one emissions, the emissions from our pigs off the barns that we own. Right tailpipes, if you will, also scope one emissions.

Scope two emissions, are emissions related to the energy footprint that we source. So if we were to be based out of the United States and we were to source energy from a coal plant, then our scope two emissions would be very high. We're blessed in Canada that we have very clean energy grids and therefore our scope two emissions are very low. And then scope three, emissions are basically everything in our in our value chain. Upstream and downstream, we don't have direct control over how a, you know, how wheat was grown per se for our for our pigs.

But what we do have control over is whether we want to source wheat and whether we want to source a wheat from X or Y supplier. Same with, you know, corrugate, for example. We don't have, again, direct control over how the box was made, but we have control over whether or not we want to source that box from someone who's sourcing their, you know, lumber or their pulp from a deforested site in the Amazon. Right. So scope three emissions also play into our purview and our level of intent and impacts as well.

Kirk: I hope you got a big team. That sounds like It's a lot of work.

Mauricio: It is. It is it is a lot of work and it is something that we are always looking for more help on. The efforts are multifold. Right, Kirk? They're there at the plants. They're at the head office. They're at the Barns. They're with our suppliers. They're with the accountants. They're all around. Right? Everybody wants to know what we're doing, how we're doing, how we're tracking, how we're verifying, how we're reporting, how we're measuring rught. We all want to ensure that none of this is greenwashing, that it's all verifiable. We want to be doing as much as we can, as quickly as we can, as urgently as we can, and still be able to have a business tomorrow where we're not sort of blowing all of the capital at once. Right?

We still want to be able to employ the 12,500 people that we employ. So it's a lot to balance for sure, but it's something that is highly energizing internally for us as a team and as an organization.

Sara: So why is Maple Leaf Foods interested in anaerobic digestion?

Mauricio: The original carbon inventory mapping that we did gave us a really good understanding of where the biggest sources of our emissions came from. And unequivocally, the number one and two sources came from our animals and from the fuel used to, either heat up our barns or fuel used at our operations facilities. And so, in came a really interesting challenge for us how do we solve for the emissions coming out of our manure lagoons?

And it seems that anaerobic digestion is a very established technology that could very handily solve this problem for us. The challenge that has been, sort of, raised here is how do we appropriately employ this technology in a very challenging climate like Manitoba? Lots of rural roads there, Barns, 100 plus are interspersed all throughout Manitoba, -40 degree weather weeks at a time in the winter. Manure is mostly liquid, swine manure because pigs are great at digesting. They actually take a lot of the energy out already, so it actually doesn't produce a lot of biogas.

But, you know, it's still harmful for the environment for it to sit in those lagoons throughout the summer months. So how do we do all of these? Is part of the challenge that we're trying to tackle. But the reason why we're interested in bio digestion is because of the benefits that it offers. It offers some true added circularity to the food system, something that is very much needed. Today 100% of all of our manure from the lagoons that we have in Manitoba gets land applied back to the lands as organic fertilizer, which is which is fantastic.

The problem is, that happens in the fall and in the summer months when the manure is sitting in those lagoons, it decomposes and emits methane, and that's not good. So digestion allows us to collect all of that manure, digest it, capture all of that methane, create digestate. Give us the ability to put it back on those lagoons and, still we can apply it in the fall as organic fertilizer.

And I'm told it's supposed to be an even better source of fertilizer because it's already it's more bioavailable to the soil and the plants and it's virtually odorless, which means we become better neighbors very quickly.

Sara: So what sort of expertise were you looking for from our scientists?

Mauricio: So we've talked to Raj and a couple of the other scientists at AAFC, Andy as well. There's no doubt in my mind you guys have some of the, world class leaders, in some of this technology at AAFC and it's been a pleasure working with them so far and sort of picking their brain around how they would go about doing some of these activities.

There's basically around 4 or 5 activities that we started to explore with them. The first one is around accurate measurements. So, today ,when we did, going back to the initial part of our discussion, when we did our carbon inventory, when we mapped all of the carbon in our inventory, part of how we did this was through some lit literature research, right? The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has specific measurements on how we should account for every litre of manure that's sitting in our lagoons.

And part of how they arrived at that measurement is through some of the most common lagoons in the world, the ones in the Carolinas, in the United States, where it is very unlike Manitoba weather, where it is constantly hot, where it is constantly getting decomposed and emitting methane into the atmosphere. In Manitoba, those lagoons do not emit methane or very little in the winter months when there is an ice crust on top of it. So getting that baseline right first is important in understanding the impacts, the true impacts that digestion will have on the environment and on the emissions coming out of those lagoons.

So part of what they're what we're seeing, how they can help in is doing, in situ, measurement of Canadian swine manure. Barns, and our manure lagoons, I should say, you know, a dozen or so to help the industry assess, Okay, what are the actual measurements here and what are the actual emissions that are that are being released from Canadian lagoons specifically? So that's the first. Accurate measurements and quantifying that.

Mauricio: The second, which I touched on a little bit, was around reducing the amount of, so again, two sides of the coins. Increasing the amount of biogas. So capturing more energy from the digestion process and thereby also looking at how we reduce the amount of emissions that comes from digestate back when the digested is returned to the lagoon and eventually when he gets land apply to the field. So that's number two.

How do we do that? And actually I believe it's the Sherbrook centre that has the idea that help us, sort of, do that with actual feedstock.

The third is around the actual lagoon emissions reductions through additives. So I mentioned that we have over 100 different barns all throughout Manitoba. The way that we're looking at this is to have centralized digesters at key locations where those different lagoons can contribute their manure to those centralised digesters. But invariably there are going to be some lagoons that are going to be just too far away. It just it just un-economical to truck liquid manure to a digester that is 150 kilometers away. Like you're you're emitting more, more emissions on the truck drive there than what the feedstock that you're carrying is going to produce in biogas.

What are some of those additives that can be dropped into the lagoons that stop the anaerobic digestion process from happening in the lagoons and stop the lagoons from going anaerobic and therefore emitting methane in those summer months. And if we're able to solve that, that's a huge plus because it means that then we are able to capture those stranded lagoons throughout our network.

And then the last one is around digestate. So digestate is what is leftover from the digestion process. And contrary to popular belief, most of what comes in to the digester comes out plus or minus. Give it five or 10%, depending on the feedstock that that's coming in. So you still are left with a lot of volume of digestate. And today we are we've modelled it to be to be returned back to the lagoons and stored there. The, that digestate can be post processed for a couple of different reasons. One is for further bio gas extraction and another one is for nutrient recirculation. So studying the ways on how we are best able to get the best nutrients out of the digestate and back on the fields is another thing that we're very interested in collaborating with AAFC.

Kirk: When you are doing something new or innovative I assume you spend a long time convince people it will work. Can you speak about that challenge?

Mauricio: You know, sometimes listening to myself talk about the dollars and cents over the sustainability impact is something that I want to I want to be clear about, because this is, you know, Manitoba has had a couple of failed anaerobic digestion projects and something that has turned off the province to to want to invest in this technology. Again, they they're a bit skeptical, if I will, around making this work because of the challenges that we've talked about.

And so one of the things that we want to ensure that we do well is that we in some ways pave a path for the for the sector and for the industry to showcase that this is possible. It is possible to do it in the most harsh conditions, in a profitable way, in a way that we can we can move forward. So always finding that balance between doing this in an optimized, profitable way, you know, while also helping the environment.

Kirk: And once we have overcome some of these challenges what do you see possible in the future for this type of technology?

Mauricio: We have big ambitions around emissions reduction as a country. As a planet, we have needs from an energy perspective and this, I think, hits on a lot of those things. We have fertilizer costs and energy costs going up. This is a way to again, increase a circularity to ensure that nothing's going to waste, right. A lot of the waste, the organic waste that comes out of our processing facilities can and will be used in our anaerobic digestion systems. A lot of the grocery waste or curbside organics, there's technology now in place to pre process stuff that's already in in bags and in cans and process all that and extract the organics and put them in digesters and stop them from going to landfills and emitting methane. So there's a lot of things I think at play here and a lot of things to prove. I'm really hopeful that we'll be able to crack the code on how to do this, how to mitigate those risks, how to address those challenges.. And in doing all that, I think it'll be a huge game changer for the for the industry too.

Sara: Both Mauricio and Raj and working head on to find solutions for our sector. Both concreate, applied solutions.

Kirk: Yeah, when Mauricio was talking in the interview I couldn't help but think it takes everybody in that organization, and it's a huge organization, to buy in and to be working on that. I am sure it's not an easy task. I think what we are doing in our research centres by helping organizations like that achieve those goals is the same.

And they are listening. Adopting a new technology always comes with a financial commitment and it has to make sense. When talking about a large operation like Maple Leaf vs. a smaller dairy farm it is a different calculation. Raj wrapped up the interview by telling us what they are focusing on next.

Raj: So like once you said the name anaerobic digester, the next thing comes immediately is cost. Because cost plays a major role, especially for small scale operations. If for example if for a cooperative or a big producers, big animal producers. Anaerobic digestion is a is a feasible solution because minimum 500 cows are even more than a thousand head of swine, for example anaerobic digestion is feasible because the cost point of view, it's doable. But when you talk about the small scale farms, who has animal of 100 head, so you know, 50 head 60 head, the cost to play the major role.

Our centers important objective is how to reduce the cost, especially the capital cost and construction cost and the material cost. So in that direction, we started developing a technology called High Solid Digester, which is a part of a micro anaerobic digester means that you develop a system just for 20 cows, just 30 cows in that way. The cost, we can reduce it, and that's where the solid digestion part will reduce the size of the digester more than ten times compared to the liquid anaerobic digestion. And this is a direction that right now we are going in.

It's like buying a tractor. Like, you invest in something, but you're going to get back the money in few years. But using these, bio products. The farmers are going to get back some money in the few years we don't know how many right now. But we have been working so hard to bring that less than ten years so that the former can have a profit from having a digester.

Sara: They are taking our usual goodbye words to heart they are "trying something new".

Kirk: That's great. What about us are we trying something new?

Sara: I am, I am leaving the agriculture sector for something completely different and I will miss this podcast so much. But I will keep listening.

Kirk: But you are staying in government, which is great. From myself and the rest of the crew I want to wish you the best of luck. It's been a real pleasure and an honour to be working with you. Thanks very much Sara.

Sara: Thanks to all of you and try something new.

If the podcast player does not work in your browser please try this version of Episode 025.

Episode 025 -Turning manure into gold

Subscribe on AppleSpotify,  Google or Sticher