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Bio-economy offers solution to province's woes

The emerging bioeconomy offers profitable solutions to many of Manitoba's water woes. Our water and nutrient management issues that bedevil us now will be our strategic assets in the future.

Currently, we oscillate between flood and drought risks in our watersheds relying heavily on drainage, which is essentially a 19th-century technology. We lament natural capital lost as our wetlands disappear. We fear for the health of our beloved Lake Winnipeg, and we debate the science for waste water treatment to protect the lake.

To address these issues we need to see the underlying strategic value of our natural assets—land, water and nutrients—as the basic inputs for a 21st-century bioeconomy. Neither this generation of Canadians nor the next should accept less than world-class stewardship of our natural resources—it will be Manitoba's comparative advantage.

At the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Saskatoon last month, Canadian clean-tech investment guru John Hamer noted that companies focused on biomass production and refining for high-end products, such as bio-plastics and bio-chemicals, are now attracting major investment interest.

These leading-edge companies are gravitating to regions with high biomass production potential—something Manitoba is rich in. It offers our generation an opportunity to demonstrate foresight and global intelligence—Lake Winnipeg is our reason to plot a course to a sustainable and prosperous bio-economy.

There is great potential to harness excess nutrients for biomass production and leverage these opportunities to revitalize Manitoba communities through the development of profitable biomass refining and nutrient recovery.

The long-term strategic value of agricultural nutrients is enormous—global food security depends on it and a clear implication is that every new urban and municipal wastewater treatment system should be built around the principle of maximizing nutrient recovery.

IISD's Water Innovation Centre has put some important ideas on the table, though there is still much work to do. We've identified a potential game changer in the peak phosphorus issue; the nutrient we generally regard as a noxious pollutant is actually a scarce and valuable resource with major technology and economic development implications.

We've highlighted the strategic significance of the huge Netley-Libau wetland complex at the mouth of the Red River and we're proving that we can "design with nature" using wetlands to produce biomass feedstock and recover nutrients.

IISD has identified Manitoba's version of the smart watershed—infused with the right mix of water management and agricultural biotechnology—as the key to drought and flood protection and nutrient management.

We don't choose our crises; we only choose how we respond.

Hank Venema is the director of the IISD Water Innovation Centre and the Sustainable Natural Resources Management Program. John Fjeldsted is the executive director of the Manitoba Environmental Industries Association.

Republished with permission from the November 5, 2010, edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.

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