Sign Up Early for SB'24 San Diego and Save! Spring Rate Ends June 23rd.

Waste Not
From Farm to Renewable Energy:
The Win-Win Solution Bringing Us Closer to a Circular Economy

As the world strives to achieve its sustainability goals, such holistic approaches not only benefit the environment but also enhance the resilience and prosperity of rural communities while taking us one step closer to a more circular future.

Sustainable practices are crucial in today’s evolving business landscape, especially within agriculture. According to Feeding America, nearly 40 percent of all food in the US is wasted. As the world grapples with the dual challenges of feeding a growing population and combating climate change, solutions such as anaerobic digestion (AD) are emerging as key players in transforming agricultural waste into renewable energy.

Agricultural organic-waste management has long been a concern for farmers, policymakers, and environmentalists alike. Traditional methods of waste disposal, including burning or landfilling, not only contribute to environmental pollution but also represent a significant loss of potential resources. Enter AD – a process that exemplifies the principles of a circular economy and resource efficiency by turning organic waste into a valuable resource while simultaneously producing clean energy.

The process

At its core, anaerobic digestion is a natural process in which microorganisms break down organic materials such as food waste, grease, and oils — creating nutrient-rich compost. This process yields biogas — primarily composed of methane and carbon dioxide — which can then be used as a renewable energy source. The process also produces digestate — which can then be used as a safe, nutrient-rich organic soil amendment — enhancing sustainability and circularity.

AD positively impacts the environment in several significant ways, making it a valuable solution for sustainable organic-waste management and renewable-energy production. Its ability to capture and utilize methane prevents methane emissions, helping mitigate the release of one of our most powerful climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Upcycling waste through AD reduces pressure on landfills, conserves land resources, and minimizes the environmental impact of waste disposal. Additionally, replacing traditional energy sources with biogas helps decrease GHGs and lowers the environmental impact associated with conventional energy production.

The role of AD in managing agricultural waste

The agricultural industry stands to gain significantly from embracing anaerobic digestion. First, it addresses a pressing organics-waste management issue by eliminating the soil and water contamination and GHGs emitted from organic residues when not managed properly. This includes methane — which is more than 25 times more warming force than carbon dioxide, and is captured and utilized as biogas during anaerobic digestion.

In addition to methane, AD also mitigates the production of nitrous oxide (N2O), another potent greenhouse gas. When organic waste decomposes under aerobic conditions, it can lead to the release of N2O — particularly in the case of nitrogen-rich, organic waste. Through its impact on nutrient cycling, organic waste treatment, and overall soil health, AD prevents the formation and release of N2O — reducing the overall emissions associated with waste treatment.

And the production of biogas can create a new revenue stream for farmers. The most popular and practical application of biogas is to clean it up, convert it to pipeline quality and inject it into the natural gas pipeline — where it can be sold as renewable natural gas (RNG). This approach reduces reliance on fossil fuels while also supporting the transition to a more renewable energy mix. By selling excess biogas to the grid or utilizing it for on-site electricity and heat generation, farmers can diversify their income sources to enhance the economic resilience of agricultural operations.

Benefits beyond agriculture

AD can be employed to reduce environmental impact in various sectors — offering solutions for organic waste management, energy production, and emissions reduction beyond agriculture. Food-waste management is one area that can greatly benefit from AD — converting food waste into biogas and nutrient-rich digestate.

The journey from farm to renewable energy is being paved by solutions such as anaerobic digestion — a process that exemplifies the potential of symbiotic relationships between agriculture and energy production. Governments, agricultural organizations, and private sector players should collaborate to create incentives, provide technical support and facilitate knowledge-sharing to enable the widespread adoption of AD.

As the world strives to achieve its sustainability goals, embracing such holistic approaches not only benefits the environment but also enhances the resilience and prosperity of rural communities while taking us one step closer to a more circular future.