Building a Thriving, Sustainable Future for Washington Agriculture

Growing Ag Symbiosis in Washington State

In the future, our quality of life will depend in large part on productive agriculture and a healthy climate. To sustain both, and the lands and waters that agriculture depends on, win-win solutions are needed. Fortunately, innovative new approaches are providing such solutions and deserve to be replicated at scale in the US.

In 2021, Washington State created the nation’s first program to advance
industrial symbiosis, a Danish concept where one company’s waste energy, water, or materials becomes another company’s valued resource. By turning waste to value and closing loops where waste is created, economic value climbs while waste, pollution, and costs drop.

In 2022, Washington took the next step and commissioned a $500,000 study of agricultural symbiosis (AS), directing Washington State University (WSU) to partner with the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) to
“develop recommendations for increasing the economic value and sustainability of Washington’s agriculture sector through the use of industrial symbiosis principles.” 

Per the legislation, agricultural symbiosis
“connect(s) agriculture producers and processors with partners to achieve synergies through systems-based resource sharing, resulting in economic benefits and value creation for all participants, through sustainable resource recovery and optimization of energy, water, and organic waste streams.” 

CSI is supporting groundbreaking AS projects(link to Pasco, Raymond?) in Washington, and is working with WSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) to develop recommendations by June 2023 for a statewide Ag Symbiosis initiative that helps ag communities benefit from these new opportunities. WSU is a national R&D innovation leader with interdisciplinary initiatives in bioeconomy and sustainable agriculture.  PNNL researchers are doing groundbreaking work in a variety of fields relevant to Ag Symbiosis. 

Examples of Ag Symbiosis

The concept of ag symbiosis is as old as farming. Food scraps were fed to livestock, manure was used to fertilize food, and so on. But new science and understanding have revealed promising new possibilities, and we learn more every day. Examples of high value but not yet common practices include:

Thermal Loops

In a hypothetical town in eastern Washington, food processors use vast amounts of natural gas and electricity for heating and cooling. They wash, clean, boil, steam, fry, and freeze vast amounts of agricultural products for shipment to buyers around the world. Down the street, huge data centers reject heat 24/7 during even the coldest days of winter.  
Under ag symbiosis, these heating and cooling cycles are connected in a thermal loop that uses the heat rejected for cooling in one location to supply heat where it is needed elsewhere. Likewise, processes that generate waste heat can be harnessed to pre-heat other hot-water processes saving energy, resources, and cost. 

Organic Waste Recovery

Whether in the field, during harvest, or in the processing facility, many tons of organic materials enter the agricultural waste stream. Sometimes these wastes can become a useful product where one industry’s “trash” can become another industry’s “treasure.”

Under Ag Symbiosis, this “waste” can be used as feedstock for livestock, composted for soil amendments, pyrolyzed to create biochar, hydrothermal liquefied to create biofuels, anaerobically digested to create renewable natural gas, or used as food for algae that converts to bioplastics found in computer ink, running shoes and other carbon-based products. 

Water Recycling

Billions of gallons of potable water are used every year for agricultural irrigation, food processing, and cooling for high-tech industries. Treatment and disposal costs are high, yet this water can have many non-potable, “fit for purpose” uses. Ag Symbiosis helps close the loop based on the opportunity, the location, and the infrastructure required to reuse and recycle it. 

Carbon to Value

Converting climate pollution streams into value through carbon capture and utilization (CCU) strategies.


Clean, Renewable Energy

Agriculture uses vast sources of energy. But we now realize it is also a significant producer of energy. The Western Grid runs on hydropower, wind, and solar, and supplies farmers and processors with clean, cost-effective energy. Yet natural gas for hot processes and diesel for shipping are still essential in ag, even though costs have risen, and they are being phased out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These fossil fuels are being replaced with new fuels that can be harvested, generated, and supplied in an ag symbiosis strategy.

With co-location, planning, and the right infrastructure, agricultural waste can be used to produce renewable natural gas and renewable hydrogen that can replace diesel and natural gas. Effluent from anaerobic digesters can be denitrified by algae that sequesters carbon dioxide when the algae is harvested for bioplastics. 

Resource Recovery & Cost Reduction

Conversion of costly agricultural, forestry, and industrial waste streams into valuable products, including clean energy, nutraceuticals, clean fertilizers, soil enhancement products, and other high-value products. And as wastes are reduced, there is often a corresponding decrease in permitting and compliance burdens and costs. 

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