Science & Technology

McGill professors receive $3 million grant to study emissions from agriculture

Many of the cutting-edge researchers at McGill’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the Macdonald Campus hope that their work will change the course of global warming. Professor Chandra Madramootoo and Associate Professor Grant Clark in the Department of Bioresource Engineering are no exception. The professors received a combined sum of approximately $3 million from the Canadian Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food for their respective research projects, which investigate how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the agricultural sector, while offering affordable new growing techniques and tools to farmers. On June 12, Madramootoo and Clark were recognized for receiving the award in a ceremony at the MacDonald campus.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry currently contribute approximately 13 per cent of global emissions. The Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food’s Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program funds agricultural research related to water use efficiency, crop systems, livestock systems, and agroforestry to try to reduce that percentage.

Madramootoo’s research strives to uncover water management strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Madramootoo, using effective drainage and irrigation systems on farms is essential not only for maintaining adequate soil moisture around crop roots for optimal growth, but also for reducing a farm’s total output of greenhouse gases.

“Crop production in eastern Canada is dependent on having adequate levels of soil moisture in the root zone,” Madramootoo said in an email to The McGill Tribune. “There are various types of irrigation systems used in eastern Canada, [namely] sprinkler systems or drip systems [….] We are therefore trying to see how we can best design and operate our irrigation and drainage systems in a way that they might help to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4) from intensive crop production systems in eastern Canada.”

Madramootoo and his research team also hope to learn more about the microbial processes in soil that determine levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Madramootoo plans to use his findings to develop a mathematical model of these emissions over a broad regional landscape. He hopes to uncover solutions that will not only mitigate global warming, but will also be affordable for farmers.

“We hope that our findings will lead to a more environmentally sustainable agri-food sector while at the same time permitting farmers to be more economically competitive,” Madramootoo said. “[We are working toward] conservation and wise use of water resources, [and] a more resilient agri-food system that is capable of adapting to climate change with environmentally sustainable water management practices.”

Clark aims to improve agricultural sustainability employing different means. In collaboration with researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Alberta, Clark and his research team hope to identify a system for converting biosolids—solid residue from wastewater treatment plants—into crop fertilizers. This tactic would not only replace traditional synthetic fertilizers, which are typically made using non-renewable resources, but it would also cut down on the greenhouse gas emission levels associated with their production.

“Instead of landfilling or burning, or otherwise disposing of the biosolids, like maybe cities do now, what we would like to do is promote the use of the biosolids as fertilizers,” Clark said. “That means we have to spend less energy creating synthetic nitrogen fertilizer or mining phosphorus or potassium […] and instead we can use the organic nutrients that are already contained in the biosolids to replace those mineral fertilizers.”  

Clark’s goal is to design a self-sustaining agricultural system which keeps the flow of nutrients in one repeating cycle—from farms, to tables, to toilets, and back again—rather than using non-renewable resources that cannot be reused or recycled.

“What we would really like to see is a more sustainable society,” Clark said. “And agriculture being the underpinning of our modern society […] we’re after sustainable agricultural practices. In order for agriculture to be sustainable, just like every other industry, we have to reduce the use of non-renewable inputs.”


This article was updated to correct the name of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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