Mitigating GHGs from agri-food byproducts through genomics
September 15, 2023 By Top Crop Manager
On Sept. 6, the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) announced a collaborative project, involving scientists at INRS, Université de Montréal and the University of Western Ontario, has been awarded more than $6.5 million in funding to help reduce agri-food byproducts and their greenhouse gas emissions.
This funding was awarded as part of Genome Canada’s Climate Action Genomics Initiative: Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems, launched in May 2022.
As the climate crisis continues, the research team co-directed by professors Joan Laur, a member of Université de Montréal’s Plant Biology Research Institute (IRBV), and Louise Hénault-Ethier (INRS) has set itself the goal of better understanding and optimizing the way micro-organisms transform organic matter. In other words, how are agri-food byproducts or food leftovers biodegraded by micro-organisms, 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,” said Laur in a press release.
“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,” added Hénault-Éthier, an associate professor at INRS and director of its Eau Terre Environnement research centre.
A ‘living laboratory’ in the heart of Montreal
The research will initially focus on urban settings, with Montreal serving as a “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 micro-organisms 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,” Laur explained. “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, which 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 twenty researchers from four universities (Université de Montréal, INRS, University of Western Ontario and McGill University) will be working on this large-scale, multidisciplinary project, in collaboration with nearly thirty partners from the community.
“This teamwork between entrepreneurs, structuring organizations, and the research community is an incredible driver of innovation,” said 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,” added co-investigator Jury Gualandris, director of University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Building Sustainable Value and an associate professor of operations management and sustainability in the university’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
The Genome Canada funding – totalling nearly $70 million for the nine interdisciplinary teams selected, of which the INRS project is one – was announced 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 co-operative.
“Genomics is driving innovation across many strategic economic sectors in Canada, from agriculture and energy to fisheries and forestry,” said Fergus in a statement. “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.”
“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,” added François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry. “Our government is proud to support the nine teams announced, 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.