Using genomics to reduce the carbon footprint of the agri-food industry

Joan Laur, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, in her experimental greenhouse at the Montreal Botanical Garden.

Joan Laur, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, in her experimental greenhouse at the Montreal Botanical Garden.

Credit: Adrien Frémont

In 5 seconds

An innovative circular economy project led by two Quebec researchers receives $6.5 million from the Government of Canada and several partners.

A project by scientsts at Université de Montréal, the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, and Western University, in Ontario, has been awarded $6,545,700 in funding to help reduce agri-food byproducts and their greenhouse gas emissions.

In Canada, agriculture, as well as food waste and its management, together produce more CO2 in a single year than passenger transportation. With that in mind, new approaches are essential to reduce the carbon footprint of the country’s agri-food sector.

As the climate crisis continues, the team co-directed by professors Joan Laur and Louise Hénault-Ethier has set itself the goal of better understanding and optimizing the way microorganisms transform organic matter. In other words, how are agri-food byproducts or food leftovers biodegraded by microorganisms, fungi or insects that feed on them?

"We’re hoping to optimize natural transformation bioreactors, such as mushroom and insect farms, which are already used by urban farmers; with this process, waste will be transformed into food or fertilizers," says Laur, a co-investigator on the project and member of UdeM’s Plant Biology Research Institute (IRBV).

"We can really reduce the carbon footprint of the agri-food system by creating a circular economy inspired by the natural functioning of ecosystems, and optimize these applications using the power of genomics," adds her co-investigator Hénault-Éthier, an associate professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) and director of its Eau Terre Environnement research centre.

A 'living laboratory' in the heart of Montreal

Initially, their research will focus on urban settings, with Montreal serving as a true "living laboratory." With an area of almost 500 square kilometres that includes a dozen microbreweries, nearly 150 bakeries and many other producers of organic matter scattered throughout the city, Montreal is considered the ideal location for this project.

Using genomics tools – that is, tools involving genetic structure and DNA – the scientists will be able to study the interactions between the microorganisms that take part in the biodegradation process.

"We’ll be able to test how biological processes can be harnessed to improve what bacteria, insects and fungi consume, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before, during and after bioreaction," explains Laur. "The microbiological biodiversity involved here could be of interest to agriculture and the agri-food sector as a whole."

The team will work closely with a number of circular-economy partners, including Tricycle, Mycélium Remédium, and Compost Brome, that operate nature-inspired bioreactors. The aim of this collaborative research is to recover organic waste at different stages of the agri-food chain.

In all, about 20 researchers from four university institutions (Université de Montréal, INRS, Western University, and McGill University) will be working on this large-scale, multidisciplinary project, in collaboration with nearly thirty partners including, besides the Montreal Botanical Garden and the IRBV: TriCycle, Mycélium Remédium, Still Good, Brome Compost, Blanc de gris, La ligne verte, Vignoble de la Bauge, City of Montreal, Cégep de Victoriaville, RECYC-QUÉBEC, Synergie Montréal, David Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (Quebec), Table filière des insectes comestibles du Québec, Invers, 3 Brasseurs, Boulangerie Jarry, EtOH Brewery, Harricana Brewery, LOOP, Collège Ahuntsic, and Parafilms.

“This teamwork between entrepreneurs, structuring organizations, and the research community is an incredible driver of innovation," says Hénault-Éthier. It will give us the opportunity to identify concrete solutions and contribute, together, to the fight against the climate crisis."

“We are working to uncover how our network of over 30 companies can best work together to optimize both the economic and ecological benefits of their upcycling efforts," adds co-investigator Jury Gualandris, director of Western University's Centre for Building Sustainable Value and an associate professor of operations management and sustainability Western's Ivey Business School. "We are enthusiastic about the practical and theoretical insights this project will bring to the field and its potential to make a positive impact."

Pan-Canadian funding to support genomics research

This funding was awarded as part of Genome Canada’s Climate Action Genomics Initiative – Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems, launched in May 2022. A total of nine interdisciplinary teams have been selected across Canada to carry out cutting-edge genomics research.

A total of $70 million nationwide was announced today by Greg Fergus, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to Treasury Board president Anita Anand, at the Centrale agricole de Montréal, Quebec’s largest urban agriculture cooperative.

“Genomics is driving innovation across many strategic economic sectors in Canada, from agriculture and energy to fisheries and forestry," said Fergus. "The Government of Canada is proud to support these Interdisciplinary Challenge teams, which are building resilience in Canada’s food production systems, creating more secure and sustainable food for Canadians and people around the world.”

Added François-Philippe Champagne, Canada's minister of innovation, science and industry : "Genomic technologies have enabled some of the most impressive scientific breakthroughs of the past two decades, and the trend is continuing thanks to the leadership of our researchers. Our government is proud to support the nine teams announced today, as they demonstrate once again Canada's role as a world leader in this field. Their expertise will help us reduce the carbon footprint of Canada's food production systems while continuing to develop innovation."

As a result of their work, the research teams will propose biotechnological innovations to reduce the carbon footprint of Canada’s bio-food production systems. In addition to the major social and environmental impact promised by the work of these teams, it is estimated that these sustainable initiatives will create over 36,000 jobs.

Did you know?

  • In Quebec, 41% of food is wasted (RECYC-QUÉBEC report, 2022).
  • In Quebec, 56% of organic waste is currently treated by composting or biomethanization (according to RECYC-QUÉBEC's summary on waste management, in a section on organic materials), but these processes do not allow wasted food to be returned directly to the food chain.
  • In Quebec, 161,381 tonnes of CO2 emissions could be avoided (a 27% reduction) and an additional 202,000 tonnes of carbon could be sequestered in fertilized agricultural soils if agri-food waste were transformed by decentralized composting (10%), mushroom farming (5%), or insect farming (5%).
  • In Canada, 15% of greenhouse gases come from food production, including transportation, processing and storage of food throughout the food system (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2023).

About the IRBV

The IRBV is a non-profit organization founded in 1990 by the City of Montreal (through the Montreal Botanical Garden) and Université de Montréal. The IRBV brings together scientists from those institutions to establish favourable conditions for collaboration in carrying out research activities, to promote the sharing of cutting-edge equipment and to encourage the co-direction of students. The IRBV's activities mainly concern the biodiversity of flowering plants, the ecology and management of ecosystems in inhabited areas and the cellular and molecular mechanisms of development. Jointly administered by the City of Montreal and Université de Montréal, thew IRBV currently employs 29 researchers, 121 graduate students and more than 100 research professionals and trainees. It is recognised as a centre of excellence in the field of plant biology.

About the INRS

INRS is an academic institution dedicated exclusively to graduate research and training. Since its creation in 1969, it has actively contributed to Quebec’s economic, social, and cultural development. INRS ranks first in Quebec in terms of research intensity. It is made up of four interdisciplinary research and training centres located in Quebec City, Montreal, Laval, and Varennes, which focus their activities on strategic sectors: water, earth, and environment (Eau Terre Environnement Research Centre); energy, materials, and telecommunications (Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre); urbanization, culture, and society (Urbanisation Culture Société Research Centre); and health and biotechnology (Armand-Frappier Santé Biotechnologie Research Centre). The INRS community includes over 1,500 students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty and staff members.

About the Ivey Centre for Building Sustainable Value and Western University

The Centre for Building Sustainable Value at the Ivey Business School, Western University, is on a mission to shape pathways of systems change towards an ecologically sound, fair future. Building on 20 years of innovation and thought leadership by the Centre’s faculty, Ivey has been ranked third in the world in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in business and management research by the Financial Times. Western University is ranked first in Canada and third in the world for societal impact towards the SDGs by Times Higher Education.

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