Agronegócio. Crédito: Danilo Cestonato/Unsplash

Agribusiness produces as much energy as it consumes

Find out how much energy this sector consumes and how it contributes to energy production in Brazil and worldwide

According to the United Nations’ Energy, Agriculture and Climate Change report for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the food generated by the agricultural chain consumes about 30% of the world’s energy demand. With the continued population growth, demand for food also keeps growing.

According to the UN, by 2050, when the world population will reach 9.7 billion, we will need 60% more food to support mankind. Currently, agriculture product cultivation systems, transportation and distribution strongly rely on fossil fuels to operate. Agriculture isn’t impacted only by climate changes; it also plays an important role in strategies to combat global warming, providing renewable energy sources and solutions to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.

To the FAO, this change is possible thanks to better access to energy, more efficient use and the increase of renewable sources in agriculture, including sustainable bioenergy from agri-food systems (food and beverage manufacturing). This can lead to a double benefit, since supplying energy to agriculture improves productivity, while limiting contributions to climate impacts on the planet.

According to the Brazilian Energy Balance conducted by the Energy Research Company (EPE), the Brazilian farm sector accounted for 4% of the country’ s energy consumption in 2017, showing a demand lower than other big economy industries - manufacturing (33.3%), transportation (32.5%), energy industry (10%), housing (9.6%) and services (4.8%).

According to data by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, diesel fuel, the fossil fuel responsible for emission of particulates and greenhouse gases (GHG), was the most consumed energy in the farming sector in 2017. Moreover, energy cost, during production processes, is among the three top items that most encumber the budget due to its need for electric energy, fuel and, depending on the sector, thermal energy.

Between 1970 and 2016, the Brazilian farming sector emissions increased 165%. Today, the Brazilian farming sector is the third largest global emitter, behind China and India. If we consider the last ten years, emissions increased about 40%, while agricultural production skyrocketed 130% and beef production, 180%. As for GHGs emission, the Climate Observatory states that, in 2016, Brazilian farming accounted for about 22% of gross emissions and 30% of GHG net emissions in the country.

The main GHG emitter component is the direct and indirect consumption of fossil fuels - as in electricity, heat processes or the transportation industry. However, in the agricultural sector, emissions are incurred especially by use and management of soil, livestock physiology (especially cattle) and treatment and disposal of vegetable and animal waste, as well as management of native areas transformed into agroecosystems.

In the long run, climate changes may compromise agricultural activity. The EPE points out that, in addition to water insecurity, agriculture may be impacted by the increase of atmosphere temperature, which may pose a threat to Brazil’s food safety and lead to negative outcomes in the balance of payments due to a decrease in export products.

One alternative to circumvent global warming’s negative effects is the adoption of biodigestion process for biogas production and refining to generate biomethane and energy. In this sense, Brazil has an edge over the rest of the world. The bioenergy share (including sugarcane ethanol) in the Brazilian energy matrix already accounts for 30%, while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries reach only 5%. In OECD non-member countries, this percentage is 12%. The high share of bioenergy in Brazil is especially due to the use of ethanol.

The Brazilian Association of Biogas and Biomethane (ABiogás) states that the land available and expertise acquired in the sugar-alcohol sector allow biomass to contribute to the renewal of the Brazilian electric matrix, especially for leveraging sugarcane bagasse.

However, a good portion of agricultural waste is not fully reused, leading to significant waste in energy terms. Brazil has a great potential for the use of biogas as an energy development for the broad biomass and organic waste available, especially from agrosilvopastoral waste (resulting from agricultural activity, forestry and pasture management in the same rural site). Additionally, there are optimal climate conditions for biodigestion process, in a landscape extremely superior to that of cold climate countries that are ahead in the use of energy development.

Renewable alternatives on the way

Biogas generated from farm sector waste biodigestion could be transformed into electricity or renewable fuel, both highly consumed items in the sector and which also have diesel as the dominating energy. According to the Energy Research Company (EPE), from 2030, with the spread and consolidation of pioneering projects and establishment of biogas service chain, the market will find the right conditions for development. Research shows that the generated electricity will be acquired, primordially, through energy offset, and is to be consumed primarily by the public and rural sectors.

While the decentralized production of biomethane might be lower in the coming years, it’s likely to intensify after 2030. This liquid is more competitive compared to more pollutant ones, such as diesel and gasoline; it has even more benefits than natural gas. Also, more environmental concerns, new legislations and higher need to mitigate local impacts increased the demand for clean and renewable solutions, making biomethane a more attractive choice in several aspects.

Other peculiarity in the production process of biogas through biodigesters is the generation of a byproduct: digestate. The semi-pasty liquid is a rich biofertilizer, and also rich in nutrients. Digestate consists of scraps of the anaerobic digestion process, and represents non-digested materials and microorganisms not surviving the process. By using digestate instead of synthetic fertilizers, which need natural gas to be produced, energy can be saved and use of fossil fuels can be lowered, also reducing GHG emissions.

The Brazilian government enacted, in 2010, the Sector Plan for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation for the Consolidation of a Low Carbon Economy in Agriculture, also referred to as the ABC Plan.  It’s a public policy that shows detailed climate change mitigation and adaptation actions in the farm sector, and dictates how Brazil intends to comply with commitments undertaken to reduce GHG emissions in this sector. It’s the result of a coordinated work by the Chief of Staff of the Presidency of the Republic, the MAPA (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply) and the MDA (Ministry of Agrarian Development), along with civil society representativity, and was approved in May, 2011.

Its general purpose is to promote reduction of GHG emissions in agriculture, as determined by the PNMC (National Policy on Climate Change), improving efficiency of natural resource utilization and increasing resilience of production systems and rural communities, allowing for the adaptation of the farming sector to climate changes. The plan established the expansion of new technologies for treatment of animal excreta and determines the use of biogas as the technology to be used for this purpose.

The plan supports proper destination of excreta and effluents from penned animals. The plan aims to provide farmers, cooperatives and associations working in the chains of pig farming, cattle farming and poultry farming with the proper and necessary investments and infrastructures to adopt technologies for animal excreta and effluent treatment.

Photovoltaic energy generated from solar panels is another alternative environmentally speaking, as it helps to reduce diesel consumption in the farming sector. Farmers may gain cost-related benefits, increase production and receive quality seals and institutional image for adopting a renewable and non-polluting source for their operations.

Either the use of biogas to generate electricity or photovoltaic energy can be operationalized within the electric power offset system laid down by the National Energy Agency, allowing to convey active power injected per consumer unit with distributed micro-generation or distributed mini-generation to the grid and be offset on the electricity bill of the generating unit.

Biofuels: agreements for the 2030 Agenda

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda sets forth 17 Sustainable Development Goals for Brazil and the world. Among its priorities are the monitoring of health and well-being, sustainable agriculture projects, affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, actions against climate changes, marine life and terrestrial life preservation. But all of this goes through the energy matrix used in large scale, a country’s infrastructure, investment in technology, innovation and education. One of the key points is to find ways to replace fuels destined for transportation industry, the one using fossil fuels the most.

The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2018-2027 report linked biofuel market progress in the last decade to environmental policies. This perspective highlights that underdeveloped countries are likely to have a more important role in the sector in the years to come. Search for fuels will keep growing in these regions, while it is expected to plateau or decline in developed countries. Biodiesel and ethanol global prices are to fall 14% and 8%, respectively, in actual terms the next decade, but demand for both in transportation industry raises uncertainties.

Global ethanol production is to rise 14% by 2027, from around 120 billion liters in 2017 to nearly 131 billion liters. 50% of volume will come from Brazilian plantations, specifically to meet the demand for domestic fuel. Thailand, China and India will likely contribute to ethanol global expansion with increments of 12%, 10% and 9%, respectively.

Coarse grains and sugarcane will continue to be ethanol’s main raw material. Fuel production is to use 15% and 18%, respectively, of the world’s corn and sugarcane production by 2027. Biomass-based ethanol is estimated to account for 0.3% of the world’s ethanol production by then.

Thus, in the medium term, agriculture is to broaden its energy production share both for its own consumption and consumption in other sectors. It will keep its dual role in the future of energy - as consumer and producer. And efficiency, for both energy consumption and production by the sector, is dependent on the flow of continued innovations. The promise of an agriculture that wastes less and produces more energy is on the horizon.