Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


In Search of Wildlife-friendly Biofuels: Could Native Prairie Plants Be the Answer

When society jumps on a bandwagon, even for a good cause, there may be unintended consequences. The unintended consequence of crop-based biofuels may be the loss of wildlife habitat, particularly that of the birds who call this country’s grasslands home, say researchers from Michigan Technological University and The Nature Conservancy.

In a paper published in the latest issue of the journal BioScience, David Flaspohler, Joseph Fargione and colleagues analyze the impacts on wildlife of the burgeoning conversion of grasslands to corn for ethanol production is posing a very real threat to the wildlife whose habitat is being transformed. One potential solution: Use diverse native prairie plants to produce bioenergy instead of a single agricultural crop like corn.

“There are ways to grow biofuel that are more benign,” said Flaspohler,
an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Tech. “Our advice would be to think broadly and holistically about the approach you use to solve a problem and to carefully consider its potential long-term impacts.”

The rapidly growing demand for corn ethanol, fueled by a government mandate to produce 136 billion liters of biofuel by 2022—more than 740 percent more than was produced in 2006—and federal subsidies to farmers to grow corn, is causing a land-use change on a scale not seen since virgin prairies were plowed and enormous swaths of the country’s forests were first cut down to grow food crops, the researchers say.

“Bioenergy is the most land-intensive way to produce energy, so we need to consider the land use implications of our energy policies,” said Fargione, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s North America Region.

Whether land used to grow corn for ethanol causes a loss of wildlife habitat depends on the type of land use it replaces. Most of the recent expansion in land planted to corn involves land previously used to grow other crops. But there is evidence that more and more land that had been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is also being converted to crop production.

CRP is a voluntary program that pays rent to landowners to convert their agricultural land to natural grasslands or tree cover, reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and benefiting wildlife. In September 2007, the amount of land enrolled in the CRP peaked at 36.8 million acres.. Just one month later, in October 2007, CRP lands had declined by 2.3 million acres. And the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 capped CRP land at 32 million acres by 2010.

CRP land has been shown to help native birds survive and thrive. CRP lands have added an estimated 2.1 million ducks annually to the fall flight over North America’s prairies. On the other hand, converting CRP land to cropland threatens the grassland birds and mammals there, Flaspohler and Fargione’s paper says. A study of the value of CRP land to grassland birds in North and South Dakota indicated that nearly two million birds of five species would be lost without the CRP in those two states.

Conversion of grassland to corn also has a potentially significant negative impact on freshwater ecosystems. Intact grasslands retain soil and nitrogen. Land planted continuously to corn releases significant amounts of nitrates to freshwater systems. When these nitrogen-laden waters real the Gulf of Mexico, they contribute to algal blooms, creating “dead zones” where low oxygen levels make it difficult for fish and other aquatic wildlife to survive. Soil draining off cropland increases sediment in fresh water, raising temperatures and degrading the habitat of fish such as trout.

What’s the solution? There are at least two ways to produce bioenergy without destroying wildlife, habitat, the researchers say. One is to use biomass sources that don’t require additional land, such as agricultural residues and other wastes from municipal, animal, food and forestry industries.

Another is to grow native perennials such as switchgrass and big bluestem. The natural diversity of prairie plants offers many benefits, including increased carbon storage in the soil, erosion control and the maintenance of insect diversity, which does double duty by providing food for birds and helping to pollinate nearby crops.

“Bioenergy can be produced in ways that provide multiple benefits to society, including energy production, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat,” Fargione said. “The Conservancy is working to implement on-the-ground demonstrations of grass-based energy systems that would increase the economic value of grasslands and provide an incentive for maintaining and extending grassland habitat.”

One concern about using native prairie plants as bioenergy crops is a lower yield per acre planted. However, said Flaspohler, he and fellow Michigan Tech associate professor Chris Webster have collected plant productivity data from12 test fields in southern Wisconsin that should shed light on how field level plant species diversity affects the amount of biomass produced per year.

“We are looking at trade-offs between producing a commodity for use as bioenergy and maintaining important ecosystem services such as soil fertility, water quality, and wildlife habitat,” Flaspohler noted. “It was by ignoring unintended consequences that we’ve now found ourselves highly dependent on a non-renewable fuel source (fossil fuels) that is contributing to climate change. With some foresight and with information on key trade-offs, I think we can make wiser decisions in the future. “

Jennifer Donovan | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>