Cows, carbon and you
An Ontario veal farm generates power and heat from cow poop. A popular brand of oatmeal cookies is baked with green energy. Some say the time has come for low-carbon labelling of everyday products. But will consumers buy it?
It’s a cold day on the farm, and surprisingly quiet. Aside from the faint smell of cow manure, one would never suspect there were 2,700 young calves behind barn doors at the Delft Blue farming facility in Cambridge, Ont., each animal oblivious to the premature death that awaits it.
No mooing. No distress. Just calm, cute, milk-fed creatures.
Vegetarians might cringe. If red meat is on their do-not-eat list, then veal is taboo. Climate advocates, well, they just wouldn’t approve. They point out that red meat is generally about 150 per cent more greenhouse gas intensive than chicken or fish.
But the fact is Canadians like eating cows and, for some, the younger the beast the tastier the dish. Each year more than three million cattle are slaughtered in Canada for food. On average, we each eat 23.3 kilograms of red meat a year, according to 2008 figures from Statistics Canada. About 70 per cent more red meat makes it into our stomachs than poultry, though the numbers are gradually shifting to chicken and turkey.
Delft Blue certainly doesn’t consider its veal a sin food, but the company has taken several steps to reduce the environmental impacts and improve the ethical image of its operations. It turns cow manure into clean electricity that is sold into the Ontario grid. It captures waste heat from that process to heat water and keep its barns warm in the winter, significantly offsetting its natural gas use. LED lighting strips also keep the barn stalls bright and welcoming for their temporary guests.
“We’re constantly trying new things, and I’m always looking to make the whole farm operate more efficiently,” says Aron Hamm, who oversees operation of Delft Blue’s 500-kilowatt on-farm biogas system. “The heat costs on the farm are just astronomical, so we can offset that significantly. With this system, we’re looking at a payback of 5.5 years on our investment.”
It all starts in the stalls. When the cows poop, the manure falls through slats in the floor grates and is carried by gravity through a series of pipes to a central collection point. The manure is then pumped into a large holding tank—the anaerobic digester—and mixed with a combination of pre-pasteurized fats, oils and greases (FOGs) delivered every two days from local sources, and some dry materials such as crop residue and grass.
Once in the digester, the mixture is heated to 38ËšC and stored for 30 days while special microbes convert the organic material into methane gas. The gas is captured, cleaned up and burned in onsite generators that inject power into the Ontario grid. Waste heat is captured and repurposed. The digester byproduct, a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer, can be sold to other farms.
“It’s basically a big giant stomach being optimized to fart 24/7,” says Dan Jones, co-owner of European Power Systems, the company that oversaw construction of the system. The entire operation is automated, and specially designed software allows Hamm to monitor and adjust each step of the process from a small control room—and from his iPhone, if necessary.
Jones says the system isn’t just helping Delft Blue offset its costs; it’s also giving the company an edge over competitors by allowing it to market its veal as a low-carbon product.
It’s the kind of branding that Loblaws and Walmart, both customers of Delft Blue, find attractive, adds Hamm. “The digester story is one of the reasons they wanted to go with us.”
Less clear is whether a greener veal product should be labelled as such on store shelves, and whether such a label will do anything to influence consumer purchasing decisions in the low-carbon direction.
WILL BUYERS BITE?
There are plenty of so-called green products on the market, from natural phosphate-free dish soaps to bleach-free coffee filters, but specifically promoting the low-carbon nature of retail products in Canada is largely untested.
South of the border, and in the absence of serious climate policy, there has been some talk of introducing carbon labelling to products as a way of nudging consumer and corporate purchasing behaviour. A bottom-up approach, some researchers say, may be more effective in the short term than waiting for political leadership.