Cooperl, one of the world’s largest pig producers, is creating biogas, biofertiliser, and algal feed from animal waste. Here’s how it’s putting circular farming in action.
Cooperl is a circular agricultural pig farming cooperative based in Brittany, France. Founded in 1966 by 24 pig producers, it now has a turnover of €2 billion a year and 7, 200 employees. Around 2, 700 pig producers are members and most are small family farms averaging 200 sows.
Like other circular enterprises, Cooperl’s driving objective is to profit from zero waste farming. As far as possible, outputs from every process are reprocessed and used as inputs for another. This means that pigs are only one aspect of their business: the cooperative also makes high-value products from agricultural waste, turning nitrogen and phosphorus recovered from manure into mineral fertiliser and farming waste into biogas.
Cooperatives are voluntary, joint-ownership organisations whose members work towards shared commercial objectives. Although similar to producer organisations, they do not have to meet certain legal conditions to qualify. The cooperative structure supports businesses that would otherwise be disadvantaged against bigger market players. The Cooperl cooperative is divided into 9 geographical areas in France, each with its own technical team of breeding technicians, building technicians and vets to facilitate easy-access services for its producer members.
The idea of agricultural cooperatives might evoke images of bucolic nostalgia, but Cooperl upends this stereotype. One benefit of a cooperative is that it can pool its resources to develop and deploy new tech. Cooperl’s R&D specialism is in technologies that help accelerate their circular mission. In this area, it holds 10 patents and has its own R&D department stocked with agro-engineers, veterinarians, mechanics, and electronic engineers. They also own an experimental farm where they test their innovations under realistic field conditions. Cooperl is not only the largest pork processing company in France and among the largest in the world but it is also leading the way in high-tech and sustainable agriculture.
Initiatives like Cooperl will be essential in making the green transition. Last year, Ramón Armengol of the European General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives stated that farming cooperatives are especially good at adding value to waste. This activity can feed into “energy, manufacturing, and technological and digital systems.” In a similar vein, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) stated that “[Co-operatives] have significantly innovated in the fields of sustainability, circular economy, pesticide reduction, risk management of natural and man-made disasters.”
Such rhetoric is common in the SDG sphere, but Cooperl is living up to these vaunted claims. Its bioenergy project shows that its circular framing operations already hold economic ramifications beyond agriculture. In 2019, Cooperl opened Europe’s largest non-spreading methaniser, Émeraude Bio-énergie, to process pig manure from 100 of their farms. Twenty-five percent of the input into the digester is pig manure while 40 percent is wastewater from the Cooperl slaughterhouse. The rest is water that is recycled from plant processes or pig urine.
The first step in making biogas is collecting feedstock. This is done using the Trac system, a technology designed by Cooperl and rolled out 12 years ago. The system is a pig house installation that immediately separates urine and manure as it falls to the floor. Liquid waste is washed along a gentle slope while solid waste is mechanically scraped outside the barn. Air ventilation wicks away odours from the air. Around 100 pig farms belonging to the cooperative had installed Trac, collecting around 34, 000 tonnes of solid manure. By moving waste outside the pig houses, it reduces concentrated ammonia emissions. One family farm in Brittany said that installing the system allows them to meet European regulations on gas emissions. The farms sell their waste at around €20 per tonne. The income means Trac installation costs can be paid off in around 11 years.
The plant produces 7.5 million metres cubed of biogas a year by using microorganisms to break down the waste matter in the absence of oxygen. Once the carbon dioxide is removed from the organic substance, it becomes biomethane. This is then fed into a gas distribution network, providing 60 million kilowatt hours per year equivalent to the energy needs of 10, 000 homes. The energy is used by consumers in Lambelle and the surrounding area.
Biogas is the most valuable product that can be made from pig manure but Cooperl’s methaniser also creates biofertilisers using a nutrient-rich by-product called digestate. The plant makes 80, 000 – 100, 000 tonnes of pelleted biofertiliser a year. Cooperl is currently planning to open a second digester to boost fertiliser production.
Cooperl’s biofertiliser is in demand throughout the year. However, some parts of Europe have a bio-nutrient surplus due to strict EU directives limiting fertiliser application. As a result, Cooperl is redirecting some of their 156, 000 tonnes of raw biogas digestate per year into alternative animal feed. As a partner on the €6.5 million ALG-AD project, it is helping conduct R&D into algae-based feed. Cooperl is culturing microalgae on nutrients recovered from the manure biogas plant. Microalgae are among the few organisms that can metabolise these byproducts.
Cost-efficient algal animal feed will be an important boost to the circular bioeconomy. European livestock farmers currently depend on soybean imports from South America. Not only do the long-haul flights rack up carbon emissions, but the soybean industry is also responsible for deforestation on a massive scale. Algae on the other hand require comparatively few acres and do not compete with human food sources. However, sustainable methods of scaled production remain in the experimental stages. Its growing and processing tend to be more carbon-intensive than importing soybean. Trials like Cooperls’ are essential in finding energy-efficient ways of producing feed-grade algae.
Cooperl also sells equipment and services to farms in England, Russia, Vietnam, China, and the Ivory Coast. In fact, 36 percent of Cooperl’s turnover comes from exports. It has particularly strong ties to Russia. In December 2009, they signed an agreement to establish a joint centre for pig breeding and selection with a group of Russian companies based in St Petersburg. Cooperl also has a presence in Henan, China, where demand for pig meat is growing. The farm there was designed by Cooperl with a post-weaning unit and insemination centre. It comes complete with the TRAC system that feeds into a local biogas plant.
Cooperl is proof of how a fully circular operation that invests in innovative R&D need not be at odds with production and profit. Cooperl’s success in transforming farming byproducts into high-value goods indicates just how much wastage – of value and resources – is involved in a standard agricultural operation. Yet, as its farms around the globe show, there is nothing preventing the model from being replicated more widely.
Increasingly, farmers’ know-how in scaled biomass cultivation will offer value well beyond food provision. Agricultural expertise, particularly when allied to the latest circular techniques, will become essential in manufacturing bio-based alternatives to petroleum-derived materials and energy. Organic waste from animal rearing will provide free feedstock for bio-based resources. Cooperl’s ability to squeeze value from every part of their farming operations is an important model for reforming our farming system and integrating it into other critical sectors of the economy such as energy.