AgBioResearch Scientists Brief Congress on the Sustainability of Cellulosic Biofuels
Two AgBioResearch scientists took part in an Ecological Society of America-hosted House and Senate briefing on the sustainability of cellulosic biofuels in June.
Phil Robertson, MAES crop and soil scientist and director of the Long-Term Ecological Research program at the Kellogg Biological Station, and Doug Landis, MAES entomology researcher, discussed the ecological and economic considerations surrounding the use of cellulosic biomass—the leaves, stems and other fibrous parts of a plant—to produce biofuels. Madhu Khanna, agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, also participated.
Landis spoke about the value, both environmental and monetary, of maintaining high levels of biodiversity in agricultural systems. Growing cellulosic crops can help maintain high biodiversity levels because farmers can grow a greater variety of crops and more complex mixtures of plant species than if they were growing only food crops. A mixture of native grass and tree crops can keep wildlife habitat intact and support vital ecosystem services, including those that help other crops in the landscape.
“Our research is focused on identifying the impact of various biofuel crops on the biodiversity of agricultural landscapes,” Landis explained. “Carefully selected cellulosic crops could enhance agricultural landscape diversity, pest suppression, pollination and wildlife while reducing greenhouse gases. We have a historic opportunity to use science to guide policy in ways that would allow cellulosic biofuel crops to be a win-win for the agriculture and the environment.”
Robertson spoke about the economic, environmental and social elements of biofuel sustainability. Cellulosic crops can be grown on land that is not suitable for food crops, so they would help to reduce competition for land in the food vs. fuel discussion. Cellulosic biofuel systems can help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions, as well as clean water and air, but achieving the benefits requires proper balancing of environmental aspects and economic incentives.
All three scientists cautioned that cellulosic biofuel environmental benefits are not guaranteed—they depend on the crops chosen, the management practices used and the geographic location of the crop
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