Biomass crops can enhance landscape biodiversity

Planting of biomass crops in arable farmland can increase landscape-level biodiversity to support ecosystem function and resilience, says Rothamsted Research.

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 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".

See: Dedicated biomass crops can enhance biodiversity in the arable landscape, Global Change Biology Bioenergy:

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