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The Symphony Effect

Defugo’s David Coleman on how the debate around food versus energy has been reframed for the future
Dairy and beef Cows and Bulls grazing on grass and pasture on an agricultural farm in Australia

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

As the world grapples with rising inflation driven by the increase in staples such as food and energy, the reduction in arable land and a global population that is racing to 9 billion, the debate over whether to use land for food or energy is rightly raging.

The Brazilian Paradox – a term coined by Defugo Technologies and PricewaterhouseCoopers in a recent joint white paper, Biomass to Energy – now comes into sharper focus.

The paradox, of course, refers to the idea that a country or a business has to choose between food or energy when processing its biomass and selling to the market.

On a global scale, deciding how best to use the ever-shrinking available arable land is not just a Brazilian problem; the USA allocates up to 36% of its corn and soy to the production of biofuels.

Sugar is just one of the commodities that suffers from the Brazilian Paradox; vegetable oils, soy and other cooking oils have all been impacted by the demand on biofuels.

In Mexico people took to the streets in what became known as the ‘tortilla riots’ when the price of corn tortillas went from eight to more than 10 pesos per kilo in late 2006.

Similarly, Indonesia banned the export of palm oil earlier in 2022, as the government was worried about the social impact of running out of the country’s staple cooking oil.

This contributed to global supply issues caused by droughts in major production countries and exacerbated by the war in the Ukraine. A knock-on effect was the soaring price of soy beans, which sent millions of Indonesians back into poverty.

Doing more with less

The driving factor here is that we have diminishing arable land, so we can’t just go and grow more food. In short, we need our farmers to do more with less. Every acre of land is needed to produce more biomass and create more food and more energy.

Biomass also sequesters carbon as part of a regenerative cycle, and we need more of that, too. But why do we need to think in terms of food versus energy?

The simple reason is that the market continually looks at the problem through the same lens; as Henry Ford famously said, if he had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

What we need is a paradigm shift in thinking, like Henry did with his Model-T all those years ago. Biomass needs to be viewed in a holistic way instead of as a single point of value. What does the entire plant represent in value? Once we have understood that, how do we recover this value?

Creating a symphony

The hemp industry talks of the Entourage Effect, which essentially is all of the elements of the hemp plant working together to bring the best results.

At Defugo we have taken this concept and focused on the four elements of the debate – land, biomass, processing and decarbonisation – to develop a process called the Symphony Effect.

It essentially allows every element of the process – land, soil, processing and decarbonisation – to be holistically accessed, integrated and bought together to create far greater output than ever before.

Just as the four parts of a symphony orchestra come together to make a whole much greater than the mere sum of its constituent parts.

The resulting symphony of food, energy and decarbonisation will lower costs, restore agricultural land, create jobs and provide a stable green economy for generations to come.

Land: the foundation

Without the land, there is no biomass for processing, so it is the foundation that we must build, protect and nurture.

Regenerative farming is the key here, as modern farmers relearn that we need to put back into the soil all that it gives out by growing our food and creating our energy.

The reduction – and the preferred removal – of chemicals and synthetic fertilisers, along with the current over-application of NPK, needs to be addressed.

Soils, like plants, all have different needs; they must be constantly tested and monitored, just as we need regular health check-ups to ensure we don’t get out of balance.

Using natural fertilisers like infused biochar holds water as well as nutrients in the soil, and locks away carbon for hundreds of years. These are the building blocks for soil microbes, the good guys of soil health.

A holistic view of biomass

The traditional view of biomass is to grow a plant that contains the most of what you are looking for.

Sugarcane, for example, is a desirable biomass because it contains such high levels of sucrose, which can be used for either food or energy in the form of ethanol.

A recent article by biofuelsdigest.com framed the issues around access to biomass in Brazil as the only real differentiator between he who wins and loses in the ‘sugar mix’ race.

This again fails to look at the biomass in a holistic way: what else is in the biomass and what’s the greatest economic value? What impact is this crop having on the environment, from the soil to our atmosphere?

As well as sucrose, sugarcane contains dietary fibres, lots of potable water, non-dietary fibres and polyphenols. When viewed through this lens, the plant becomes far more enticing economically for its potential role in feeding the world.

Unfortunately the way we process sugarcane destroys all of these valuable elements, and the plant really falls down environmentally. It’s a very slow-growing crop, taking two years to mature, and isn’t great at sequestering carbon.

Unfortunately we burn millions of hectares of it each year, spewing millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The resulting environmental disasters can be seen and felt in the ash rain that falls hundreds of kilometres away.

In the context of the Symphony, the biomass needs to do way more than one thing, especially as only so many plants will fit on an acre of land. We need to break with traditional crops and look for plant species that will deliver the needs of a hungry, growing population that needs energy.

With this task in mind, Sydney University has been working with Defugo to develop a new crop that is fast growing, delivers high-grade plant proteins from its leaf matter and seeds and energy from its stalk.

The plant has a deep, complex root system that sequesters huge volumes of atmospheric carbon into the soil.

Testing and trials have shown that this can be as much as 80MT a hectare per rotation. In the context of cropping over millions of hectares globally, this is a significant amount of carbon removal from our atmosphere, multiple times a year. It’s also very high-density biomass, delivering 16-30MT per hectare per rotation. It’s not hemp and it’s legal everywhere.

Processing: don’t crush it

The process of crushing destroys nearly everything of value in biomass and even restricts access to a fair percentage of the target extract originally desired.

Nowhere is this more acutely seen than in the processing of sugarcane, where sucrose remains in cake, molasses and in the bagasse.

While Generation 2 processing facilities view bagasse as the solution to the problem, Defugo has approached this problem by not creating the bagasse at all.

Our Universal Processing Plant (UPP) allows the holistic value of the biomass to be realised, and each part of the plant to be extracted precisely and recovered completely.

This means that there is no longer a debate over food versus energy, as now the biomass delivers 100% of its food value and creates low-cost energy in the form of electricity, renewable diesel, SAF, ethanol and hydrogen – all with zero waste.

The UPP can process any biomass – from traditional crops to new fast-growing, high-output crops with voluminous carbon sequestration – without the capital costs of a separate processing facility.

The final act of the UPP, when converting the woody parts of the biomass to energy, is to create high-quality biochar. We now come back to where we started, connecting the circle of soil-to-plant-to-soil at scale.

Decarbonisation and farming

With the correct biomass selection, farmers will be able to sequester large volumes of carbon in their soil with every crop rotation. Our farmlands would then act like forests, drawing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it into our soil.

The contributions of this high-volume carbon sequestration and the low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created by biofuels makes a very strong argument for biofuels to become the ‘gap’ filler in our global transportation systems until we find a better solution.

This would be especially so if the world followed the precedent set by Brazil and removed the E10 blend regulations; nearly every car in Brazil runs on E100 and our trucks and trains could all run on D100 too if our governments and transport operators had the same appetite for carbon reduction. This is not a technical problem, it’s a policy failure.

Feeding 9 billion people

Why are we relying on Brazil to carry the load? Australia, my home country, runs on diesel – to the tune of over 30,000,000,000 litres a year.

According to Australian Carbon, replacing this diesel with renewable D100, made from the right biomass, would sequester 139,280,000 metric tonnes of carbon into our soils and replace a further 90,299,920 metric tonnes of emissions.

Australia has vast tracts of land that are either under-utilised or locked up in single-use leases, such as the Northern Territories pastural lease programmes.

Australia would need under 1% of its current land mass to be converted to a high-carbon sequestering biomass to become carbon neutral, or just 4.25% of unused Crown lands.

This would be achieved while simultaneously producing food and energy and providing regional Australia with long-term job security.

In his new book, Superpower Transformation: Making Australia’s Zero Carbon Future, leading economist Ross Garnaut states that biomass is one of the five pillars that would allow Australia to become a renewables superpower. In the book he states that Australia could replace up to 8% of global GHG emissions – the equivalent of continental Europe, including Britain, removing all its emissions.

Now that the argument of food versus energy has been removed and we have a clear pathway for how to feed 9 billion people on this planet (without destroying it) by 2050 and beyond, will our politicians at COP27 have the fortitude to change policies and make this happen?

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