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Biomass crops can enhance landscape biodiversity

Miscanthus

Planting of biomass crops in arable farmland can increase landscape-level biodiversity to support ecosystem function and resilience

Non-food, perennial biomass, crops such as willows and miscanthus, can contribute to the reduction of CO2 and play a role in mitigation against climate change. Rothamsted Research scientists and colleagues in France, examined the potential of these crops to enhance biodiversity at the landscape level. The researchers used biodiversity datasets collected throughout the UK from commercial arable and biomass bioenergy crops and demonstrate for the first time that the biomass crops enhance farmland biodiversity at the landscape -level. The study is published today in the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture has a significant role to play in food and energy security. Protecting and enhancing biodiversity in farmland is essential in order to achieve sustainability. This can potentially be achieved by landscape-scale planting strategies that are underpinned by scientific evidence.

Dedicated biomass crops, such as miscanthus and short rotation coppiced (SRC) willows, are grown commercially in the UK for bioenergy. These are perennial crops remaining in the ground for long periods and require low agro-chemical inputs (fertilisers & pesticides). Therefore, these perennial crops are very different to food crops that are grown for biofuel on an annual basis with high inputs. Intensive farming of food crops for biofuel is controversial and results in well-documented negative impacts on farmland biodiversity. Given the differences in management of the perennial bioenergy crops and annual food crops, it was hypothesised that there may be opportunities for enhancement of biodiversity in intensively management arable farmland, but this had not been demonstrated at the landscape level.

Dr Alison Haughton, Rothamsted Research scientist who led the study, said: “In order to inform planting strategies of crops that can contribute to energy security whilst conserving and enhancing biodiversity, we need to carry out landscape level studies and examine a range of biodiversity indicators in detail. This is exactly what we did in this study”. 

“We collected and analysed the most comprehensive, currently available, national-scale datasets of biodiversity indicators, such as seeds in the soil (seedbanks), weed biomass, and invertebrate density, for both the perennial and arable crops”.

“Our analyses have revealed that the perennial cropping systems support greater abundances of plants and invertebrates, and that the communities of these indicators of biodiversity are quite different to those found in the biodiversity-impoverished arable cropping systems. Our findings can inform landscape-scale planting strategies for a more resilient and sustainable agriculture”.

Prof Angela Karp, who leads the Cropping Carbon strategic programme of research supported by the BBSRC at Rothamsted, commented: “We often hear most about the negative impacts of some bioenergy systems but this is really not the case for all bioenergy crops. When grown on land less suited to food crops, in integrated farming systems, perennial biomass crops like willow and miscanthus bring multiple environmental benefits that help offset some of the negative consequences of intensive food production. Multifunctional land use of this kind will be essential in meeting the diverse needs of the UK bioeconomy”.

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About the RELU-Biomass project

The RELU-Biomass project was supported by the Rural Economy and Land Use programme, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding provided by the Scottish Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).  The project, led by Prof. Angela Karp, was an interdisciplinary collaboration between social scientists, economists and environmental scientists to understand the implications of increasing rural land use under energy crops.

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For further information, please contact:

Jonathan Carruthers (jonathan.carruthers@rothamsted.ac.uk), Tel: +44 (0) 1582 938 109
Dr Matina Tsalavouta (matina.tsalavouta@rothamsted.ac.uk), Tel: +44 (0) 1582 938 525

About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.

Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 Rothamsted Researched received a total of £32.9M from the BBSRC.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes