Opinion: Canada should be an agricultural bioeconomy leader

Canada is a country rich with innovation in the agricultural bioeconomy, but poor in implementation and commercialization to the point where we have fallen behind other countries.

Posted: Jun 7, 2023

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Canada should be an agricultural bioeconomy leader

Murray McLaughlin, Bioenterprise Innovation Advisor, Bioeconomy (Agriculture & Forestry), urges governments, industry and consumers to align on Canadian leadership in the agricultural bioeconomy

By Murray McLaughlin

There is an increasing demand globally for bioproducts from biomass. At Biomass Quality Network Canada (BQNC) we have been focused on research and development to establish a certification program for quality ag-biomass and hope to have that in place over the next three years, assuming appropriate funding.

Canada is a country rich with innovation in the agricultural bioeconomy, but poor in implementation and commercialization to the point where we have fallen behind other countries. Canada has sustainably produced biomass in agriculture and forestry but needs the sector support to get it commercially established into a global leadership industry position.

Science and technology play important roles in maximizing the economic contribution of biomass, and Canada has excellence in this area within our universities and colleges to keep us on the leading edge of bioeconomy development. Canada has the development technology to build a solid bioeconomy industry and the expertise to build international partnerships as we create the export part of the industry and business attraction.

In a workshop held in Ottawa on bio-hubs in 2020, participants from all regions had robust discussions that covered the opportunities and challenges of bio-hubs as well as the value bio-hubs could create in regions across Canada. Each region had distinct characteristics, but all areas of the country faced some of the same opportunities and challenges.

The bio-hub report went on to look at a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) process for Canadian bio-hubs. The strengths were:

  • Quality and quantity of available biomass
  • Sustainable management practices of both agriculture and forestry sectors
  • Already established supply chains and infrastructure
  • A reputation of being environmentally responsible

These strengths should allow for realizing growth in the Canadian bioeconomy for biomass. Of course, there is a flip side: the weaknesses. The major weakness identified is capital to support the establishment, and government structure with diverging priorities making change adaptation difficult.

In discussions around possible actions, many groups identified that one of the highest priorities for promoting bio-hubs in Canada would be to incentivize the use of bioproducts and biofuels, therefore increasing demands from consumers. Others focused on financial structures and another on regulation that prioritize procurement of biobased products. Almost all groups identified the need for co-operation and collaboration among partners, including all levels of government, to ensure success of bioeconomy clusters.

One of the key areas needed to build the future of biomass in Canada is a solid long-term national bioeconomy strategy supported by industry and governments, so we all go in the same direction – building the Canadian bioeconomy.

Canada’s agriculture, food and forestry industries are a well-kept secret – which is unfortunate and needs to change. A few provinces are developing their own strategies and at one time industry proposed the “biodesign strategy,” but it has been slow to be adapted. We need buy-in by all players across the country – governments (federal, provincial and municipal), industries, and all Canadians – to take a leadership role in building the future for agriculture and the forestry bioeconomy. Canada should be a global leader based on the many resources Canada has.

In agriculture and forestry, the biomass left in the fields (tree tops and branches), or straw, corn stover and other ag biomass that can be removed (50 per cent removal would produce close to 100 million tonnes a year that could be used to develop bioproducts ­– biofuels, bioenergy, biochemicals, and biomaterials). Yes, there is a cost to create new biomass opportunities, to create jobs today and for future generations. For building Canada into a global leadership player in the bioeconomy we need to create a national strategy acceptable to all players in Canada.

One challenge is educating Canadians about what biomass is. I hear the term waste often and quality biomass is far from waste. A farmer friend of mine reminded me once that there is no such thing as waste, just “underutilized resources,” which is exactly what forestry and agricultural biomass is – a resource – something that has real value. Biomass can create new business opportunities, create jobs, and help in managing our plans for reaching net-zero temperature increases, as mandated by governments.

The United Nations published their 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Countries and industries are looking at how they can follow these goals as they strive to implement their bioeconomy strategies. Around the world the bioeconomy is being looked at as an essential part of the future in most countries as they move away from traditional plastics and other materials that are not sustainable. For Canada, biomass can play an important role in that future – new jobs, new businesses and new products for use at home and for export.

Canada is a large country from a land mass perspective and could and should be a leader in the use of biomass to bioproducts from forestry and agricultural biomass. Establishing the industry is not without its challenges, but by working together governments and industry can overcome the challenges.

Let’s create the partnerships required to overcome the challenges and create the industries our biomass can create, starting with a national bioeconomy strategy supported by all.

Murray McLaughlin, advisor to Bioenterprise and chair/advisor BQNC at BIC, was executive director of BIC and SCA, Sarnia, Ont. (2010-16). During his career he worked with government, industry, and non-profit sectors such as director business development for Canadian Light Source; president OAFT: deputy minister Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food; president Ag-West Biotech Inc. He managed Foragen (Venture fund), and 15 years with ELANCO in R& D and marketing. His career has focused on bioeconomy including product commercialization, and cluster building. He sat on several boards and advisory committees and still does. His education: NSAC (Diploma}, McGill (BSc) and Cornell (MSc and PhD). Received Honorary Doctorate from Dalhousie University and received several awards over his career; LSO Community Service Award and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal; LSO Lifetime Achievement award and recognized in top 100 global leaders in the Advanced Bioeconomy (2016).

Original blog content can be found on the Canadian Biomass website here.

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