Oct. 25, 2019

One mouthful at a time: Agricultural Processes and Greenhouse Gases from a Biological Perspective

University of Calgary's Dr. David Layzell and PhD Student Kunbi Adetona on Agricultural Processes and Greenhouse Gases from a Biological Perspective

When we sit down to eat a meal, do we think about the effort and energy that was expended in creating its different parts? A simple sandwich can consist of bread made from water, grain, meat or cheese from livestock, and lettuce or tomatoes from the soil to name a few of the possible variations. How many individuals were involved in creating the crops, how much water was used, fertilizer added, transportation needed, and myriad other parts included in the process. The combination of disparate agricultural production can seem staggering when taken together to make the food that we eat. University of Calgary doctoral student and researcher Kunbi Adetona is not afraid of the complexities of these systems and has made it her life’s work to analyse the inner workings that contribute to the greater magnitude of such processes from a biological perspective. According to Kunbi“If people cannot see the vision, the picture of what you’re saying, then they cannot adopt new practices.

PhD Student Kunbi Adetona

PhD Student Kunbi Adetona

Under the supervision of Dr. David Layzell, director of the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) Initiative at the University of Calgary, Kunbi has surrounded herself with like-minded cohorts who search to uncover the way an energy system works by understanding its collective impact. Her background in plant sciences began with undergraduate work at the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta in Nigeria and continued at the University of Saskatchewan with a Masters in soil science providing Kunbi with a solid foundation of how to use microbial interactions to reduce soil emissions of greenhouse gases. Before her doctoral studies, Kunbi consulted in the private sector where she attained her certification as a professional agrologist and gained a working knowledge of environmental assessment as well as greenhouse gas emission reduction verification. 

In her recently published research article in the journal AnthropoceneKunbi examines the energy and carbon generated by agricultural practices and how it relates to climate change. Cleverly using crude oil production as a benchmark for her comparisons, she surprisingly discovered that agricultural practices across Canada fall far behind those of the fossil fuel industry comparing efficiency and carbon production at similar levels of output. The discrepancy is stunning, with conversion efficiency being 6.5 times and energy return 5.3 times lower from agri-food than crude oil systems. Kunbi doesn’t want her research to get caught up in statistics and numbers resulting in finger pointing and misrepresentations. She sees these discoveries as levers to take practical action and recognise that learnings can be taken from industries that are more mature in their approach to reducing harmful effects and recapturing carbon. “We think anything from nature is free”, a common misconception that Adetona wants to dispel. She argues that we can learn from the oil industry to improve efficiency in agricultural approaches. “We have better opportunities to manage the agricultural system, but how can we do that?” she offers. Her evidence-based approach is about understanding the system and how the micro pieces work together so that changes can be made and measured. In the end, Kunbi suggests that we need to stop isolating GHG emissions to limited industry verticals and “adopt practical solutions” that are actionable based on the different systems. She notes that change will come from individuals who each play their role in the agricultural system. Whether it’s a farmer using alternative energy to heat a barn or a consumer eating less meat as part of a healthier diet, people understanding the impact of their actions is key. 

Creating practical results when targeted actions are implemented is Kunbi's goal as she foresees the impact of increasing agricultural energy and carbon efficiency reaching every corner of the globe. She confidently notes that “The environment is not just ours, it’s for everybody, including the future generations.” Agricultural practices are similar globally and she sees a large opportunity for Canada to take a leading position in reducing carbon footprints through the introduction of new and creative strategies to increase efficiencies in the entire agricultural production cycle. Alberta is a nationally leading exporter of fossil fuels and agricultural livestock such as cattle is an ideal proving ground for implementing changes that can become models for Canada and on an international scale. 

Adetona is also thrilled with the time she has spent within the Department of Biological Sciences pursuing her PhD. and gushes about her University of Calgary experience. She appears in an orientation video for graduate students and suggests that students explore programs and services that will help them succeed in the university and beyond. She advises prospective students to search for potential supervisors and colleagues whose research and academic interests align with theirs.  

Kunbi encourages all to find relatable practical solutions to reduce the global impact of agricultural production systems and carbon emissions, imploring the use of system-level thinking. She is an expert at examining the smallest of factors, as her background in biology demonstrates and she also reminds us that each part, no matter how small, is a piece of the larger system. To make true and lasting changes to our carbon footprint we must take steps each day to make a positive impact.

For more on Dr. Layzell’s research, visit: https://www.cesarnet.ca/ 

To access the publication “Anthropogenic energy and carbon flows through Canada’s agri-food system: Reframing climate change solutions”, visit: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213305419300244/ 

To access Kunbi Adetona’s article “Comparing Canada’s Anthropogenic Systems: Agriculture-to-Food vs. Crude Oil-to-Refined Products”, visit: https://www.cesarnet.ca/blog/comparing-canada-s-anthropogenic-systems-agriculture-food-vs-crude-oil-refined-products 

To access other media coverage of this research, visit: 

Wire Service - https://www.wireservice.ca/index.php?module=News&func=display&sid=24957 

JWN - https://www.jwnenergy.com/article/2019/7/canadas-oil-industry-outperforming-agri-food-energy-efficiency-study/ 

Alaska Highway News - https://www.alaskahighwaynews.ca/business/canada-s-oil-industry-outperforming-agri-food-on-energy-efficiency-study-1.23880511 

Western Producer - https://www.producer.com/2019/07/ag-inefficient-with-carbon-emissions-study/ 

Climate Atlas - https://climateatlas.ca/video/biogas-and-biochar-0 



Article by Neil Christensen