Sustainability and the bio-economy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The growth in demand for grain to fuel the ethanol industry has prompted US farmers to increase their corn acreage by 19% over the last year, writes Nadya Anscombe for the Environmental Research Web.

The development has raised fears that extensive biomass crops may damage soil fertility and increase erosion, states the September article. 

Scientists researching the transition towards an agricultural model that can produce more biomass and continue to produce food and fibre believe that the impact of biomass-based crops on agriculture can be as profound as that of biomass on energy security and the global climate. 

Whether this will be a positive or negative impact will depend on how biomass is produced, adds the author. 

For example, the recovery of nitrogen fertilisers from an integrated biological and thermo-chemical process that converts switchgrass into ethanol could significantly improve the sustainability of biomass production, says Anscombe. 

Moreover, residual plant nutrients from gasification could be returned to the fields that produced the biomass, she adds. 

IT applications are being developed to help farmers understand how collecting biomass from their fields may affect soil fertility, such as the bio-economy add-ons for I-FARM, a free web-based simulation model on integration of crop and livestock production, says Anscombe. 

She concludes that despite strong support from the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation for research in the bio-economy sector, enhancing sustainability is the major challenge for the development of a new agricultural system. 

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