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Project: Transform Alberta – How Alberta’s Farmers, Entrepreneurs and Innovators Can Help Feed the World

On October 31, 2011, the global population reached seven billion. It’s predicted to grow by another two billion by 2050. At this rate, we’ll have to grow and raise more food in the next 50 years than we’ve produced cumulatively over the past 10,000

Apr 1, 2012

by Jennifer Cockrall-King

This is the third in Alberta Venture’s series of six stories addressing big, bold ideas for this province. The first, “Alberta at 10 Million,” appeared in the November issue, and the second “Building a Homegrown Auto Sector” appeared in February. Next up, in June, we’ll ask the question, “What does Alberta need to do to become the healthiest jurisdiction on the planet, and what would it mean for the province?”

In the chill of the spring dawn, an Alberta livestock farmer waits nervously for a pregnant cow to give birth. As soon as she does, the farmer swabs the inside of the newborn’s cheek. The sample is quickly shipped to a lab in Edmonton where the calf’s DNA is extracted and analyzed. Three weeks later, the farmer knows if the calf has won the genetic lottery. Does it have the genes to make it a great producer of milk? If it’s a beef breed, will it produce AAA steak years later? Plainly put, it doesn’t make sense to bring that calf to age if genetics aren’t on its side such that it can be healthy and productive and contribute to a profitable enterprise.

llustration Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Welcome to the brave new world of farming. Primary agriculture in Alberta is a $7.7-billion industry, with crops accounting for $3.7 billion of that number and livestock bringing in $3.5 billion. But while our role as a volume producer of raw exports may be significant, our greatest contributions to helping solve global hunger could yet be ahead. Perhaps our role in the global food economy will be one of innovation and contributions to technological leaps. This future will be one where soil is enriched with “biochar,” where farmers earn as much through their efforts to offset carbon dioxide emissions as they do from crops, and where every animal is scanned, analyzed and barcoded.

“I see a time where we are genetically testing every animal in the food chain.”
– Colin Coros, vice-president, Delta Genomics

“If we can link a trait to a genetic marker – which we almost always can – we can take a sample from a calf and tell the producer right away [whether the animal has those traits],” says Colin Coros, vice-president of operations with Delta Genomics in Edmonton. “We’re helping producers select their herd even before they get to the point where they need to manage it.”

Any such gain in quality or efficiency is a major advantage for even the most successful livestock producer. Even in Alberta’s cattle country, profit margins are painfully thin.

Fortunately, the province has a decade-long head start in livestock genomics, with pioneering research and development through the University of Alberta’s Livestock Gentec program. And thanks to a $3.5-million investment from the Western Diversification Program, Delta Genomics – a non-profit commercial startup – is building on Livestock Gentec’s knowledge and making the technology available to producers in Alberta and beyond.

In November 2011, Delta Genomics opened its doors – and laboratories – on the top floor of Enterprise Square in downtown Edmonton. It’s Canada’s only full-service livestock genomics DNA laboratory that offers the “biobanking” of livestock genetic material and diagnostic services to livestock producers. Coros says with almost every dairy cow in Canada now being genetically tested, genomics will affect all livestock production in the near future.

Being able to select for animals with better health, fewer days on pasture, better muscle marbling and fewer recessive health problems will fast track herd improvements.

Genomics may be a nascent industry, but Coros notes it has tremendous potential in Canada given that the country is home to 12.5 million cattle and 12 million swine.

The livestock industry in Alberta alone generated an estimated $4 billion in revenues in 2010. “I see a time where we are genetically testing every animal in the food chain,” Coros says. “If we could follow it through the value chain, it’s a DNA fingerprint. That would result in the most secure food system in the world.”

The ability to improve herd characteristics goes well beyond guaranteeing a juicier steak and even beyond food safety. Worldwide demand for meat, a food group with an enormous environmental footprint, is skyrocketing as the world’s most populous nations industrialize and start to eat more like North Americans. For every kilogram of grain-fed beef (the current consumer preference), a cow needs to eat 10 kilograms of feed. The freshwater resources required are even more startling, at 15,000 litres per pound of grain-fed beef. Furthermore, agriculture is thought to account for 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases, a major factor in climate change. A 2006 study by the United Nations estimates that livestock is the source of 18 per cent of all greenhouse gases produced globally. If we can build better cows, swine, goats and other livestock, we could better balance sustainability with the world’s food demands. “Other people in the world could benefit from more meat,” Coros says. The trick is to help them do it with fewer resources.

Across the city in a one-room office at the Advanced Technology Centre at the Edmonton Research Park, Len Eddy, the managing director at AgCert International — a company that produces and sells agriculturally derived greenhouse gas emission reductions — palms a Ziploc bag full of “biochar.” It’s a porous, featherweight, fine-grained charcoal that resembles fireplace sweepings. According to Eddy, biochar helps soils retain nutrients and water and provides a home for the microscopic life forms that nourish plants. Best of all, it doesn’t degrade or wash away like other organic matters in soils.

Biochar is created when wood or any carbon-rich biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen. It can be made cheaply from waste products from forest and agricultural industries, even from manure. Eddy claims that Biochar soil can turn sandy, nutrient-poor soils into rich, black earth necessary for healthy plants and crops. In medium to poor soils, where biochar can do the most good, he says, it drastically reduces the need for expensive chemical fertilizers as it eventually restores the soil’s natural vitality.

We don’t often give much thought to dirt in topsoil-rich Alberta, but globally, agriculture is contributing to the loss of soil at an alarming rate. “We’re decarbonizing our soils,” Eddy says, referring to the mania for extracting ever-higher yields from our cropland and fields. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency warns that “in many agricultural areas, soil is eroding at a rate of several tons of soil per acre per year, or higher.”
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada puts the issue in even starker terms on its website: “Soil erosion is the most serious threat to global food production.” In other words, anyone who can figure out how to create sustainable soil might be on to something very big.

In 2008, Eddy literally stumbled upon biochar while flipping through the pages of National Geographic. He read how intact, ancient topsoil deposits were found in the Amazon. A rain forest is traditionally a very poor place to grow food. The rain simply washes soil away, and what is left is often rinsed clean of any plant nutrients. Yet pockets of fertile topsoil almost two metres deep were found in various sites. As it turns out, Amazonian farmers were adding a type of highly stable charcoal to build deep layers of permanent carbon-rich earth. Given his background in forestry and agriculture, Eddy says the idea of manmade charcoal creating better soil “just made intuitive sense.” He knew it was his next big business idea.

In late November 2011, Eddy’s Carbon Basis Company joined forces with Biochar Solutions Inc. from Colorado to form Biochar Solutions Canada Ltd. “We could deploy the technology today,” Eddy says. However, agrologists and farmers are just at the beginning of the learning curve of what biochar can do. For many of them, it’s still just another expense that they don’t want to even contemplate. “If you tell a farmer that they can save $2 by investing one more dollar in biochar,” Eddy says, “they can’t get past ‘one more dollar.’”

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