Biorefinery Leads to Increased Fertilizer and Land Use Efficiency and to Better Incomes for Agriculture

Johan P.M. Sanders, Sybrandus Koopmans, Theresa T. Rubhara, James Gaffey

The population of the world is ever-growing. It is expected to reach 10 billion in 2050. To feed all those people, significant improvements in our food production systems are required. Current agricultural practices have proven to be damaging to ecological systems worldwide, leading to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and water pollution, among other problems. Moreover, two-thirds of agricultural land is currently used to feed livestock. We have already overstepped the Planetary Boundary as defined by Rockström et al., (2009) for reactive nitrogen usage. Simply upscaling agricultural activities to meet the demands of the growing population is therefore not an option. Such an  approach would lead to a nitrogen fertilizer requirement which is three times higher than the world can sustain. We therefore need to become three times more efficient in using Nitrogen and consciously evaluate the way we produce food. New and disruptive innovations are needed to ensure a sustainable future for the next generations. This perspective paper    describes small-scale grass biorefinery technology which will contribute to solving three major issues: agricultural nitrogen emissions, the need for more agricultural land and the import of soy, Fructo Oligo Saccharide and a mineral concentrate. The technology can be economically operated in grass rich countries at a scale of 8-ton fresh grass per hour. In developing countries, it can be operated economically on a scale of 0.4 ton per hour. Both systems can also process green leaves of other plants which are not currently used to produce food or feed: leaves of cassava; palm leaves; sugar beet leaves; and green leaves of rice collected just after the rice harvest, etc. When grass derived from marginal land is included, we can increase the production of protein without increasing the land required for agricultural cropping. Since the grass biorefinery splits soluble and insoluble proteins, the first can be fed to cattle and the latter to pigs and poultry because in so doing the efficiency by which these proteins are used increases by 50%. This again means that one-third less land, and one-third less N, P, K fertilizers are required for the same food-grade protein production. As 50% more animal protein can be produced from the same hectare of grassland, more economical value will be created which can be divided over the players in the chain: crop and grass farmers, biorefinery and animal farmers.

Keywords: Nitrogen Planetary Boundary, Biorefinery, Grass, Small-scale, Protein