Biomass can be a good reason to reforest and cultivate perennial species on a degraded world we have changed recently. Renewable energies from perennial cultivated biomass crops can help us to promote a sustainable greener world.
Some researchers in the past use to think on energy crops as intensive options with huge inputs, replacing food production systems and producing more emissions than fossil energy sources. Here we will show you 5 best reasons you cwill find reasonable to support perennial herbaceous crops and woody species grown to produce renewable energy in areas not dedicated to food production.
1) ADAPTATION FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: REFORESTATION
Fossil energies are becoming more and more expensive. There are enough fossil sources for upcoming years, but the cost to get them is becoming huge while environmental impacts are always worse.
If we reforest we could have a great benefit in several ways we know. However during last decades biomass to energy techn ologies changed a lot and now they are more and more easy to adopt at different scales. You can replace diesel motors, produce air cleaned stoves for domestic uses and have bio-power or methane. All of them are systems working commercially in most developed countries of the world and increasing each year.
When you produce biomass you replace fossil energy sources. If thermal applications, bio-power, syngas, methane or second generation biofuels are considered., several kinds of biomass from cultivated species are viable.
We need to reforest much more. But how? Who is goping to pay the bill? And for what use and market? Nobody doubts about reforestation as an adaptation measure to combat climate change and there is clearly enough scientific. However, there are only some regions with pulp sectors or forestry companies promoting reforestation on degraded lands and there millions of hectares that are not being cultivated for a variety of reasons. The biggest limitation here is the lack of final users for biomass and of course financial
Learn about biomass here:
2) WE COULD REPLACE UNSUSTAINABLE SYSTEMS. LETS TALK ABOUT FOOD FOOTPRINT
Unsustainable food systems can be improved in a biobased economy.
A person’s food footprint (foodprint) is all the emissions that result from the production, transportation and storage of the food supplied to meet their consumption needs. We chose to focus on food supply, rather than only food consumption, because a large proportion of food is lost at retail and consumer level. Although emissions also occur when people transport, store and cook food, these emissions are omitted from our calculations as they are captured in travel and housing footprints.
A landmark scientific assessment commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has confirmed that agriculture has a monumental impact on earth’s finite resources.
According to the study, 38% of the world’s total land area was used for agriculture in 2007 and agriculture is responsible for over 70% of global freshwater consumption.
Additionally food wastes can be used and bioenergy crops can be used to complement supply chains. See an example for biogas in the Caribbean.
Here you can estimate your food footprint. Try it.
Most alarming however, is the inefficiency of our food production system, encouraged by diet preferences in developed countries especially, but increasingly worldwide. Even in comparison to industrial activities, which are heavily criticized for their impacts on the atmosphere and biosphere, “agricultural processes have an inherently low efficiency of resource use, which renders food, fibres and fuels from agriculture among the more polluting resources”. We suggest you to read this article titled “MEAT OR CLIMATE“
3) CULTIVATE BIOMASS ON SURPLUS AND DEGRADED LANDS CAN GENERATE INCOME AND WELFARE
Degraded and low competitive lands areavailable worldiwde (FAO estimates around 2 billion hectares) and they are not decreasing but expanding. Deforestation rates have been decreasing in some countries but deforestation absolute numbers are huge anyway. We cut millionds of trees everyday in a 100% UNSUSTAINABLE manner.
How much degraded lands we have? Well there are many published articles we could share about it and we have been writing about it here.
Even if the discussion about marginal land availability is quite complex everyone agrees that we need to reforest as much as possible and there millions of hectares that have been deforested already for cattle and crops. Once a land has been deforested most of it is occupied by ranchers to produce grasslands and beef cattle. Timber companies use some of the raw materials and residues from clearings and huge quantities fo bimass are just burnt without any reasonable use or benefit but a net impact for the environment.
New biomass technologies allow most developing countries to find new financial resources producing renewable energy right from residues available and new forestry activities. Sinergies with pulp companies or traditional foresty may allow several advantages (double purpose, for example wood and energy consumed locally or power to the grid).
Reforestation and renewables are feasible and the advantage is clear with millions of hectares with feasibility. We just need knowledge and to select right choices for each area in order to boost productivity without affecting food sectors in low competitive or unused lands.
There is an action to take at that moment. Promotion of sustainable bioenergy uses. Taking residues from those areas that government cannot avoid to be deforested is very do-able. Rural areas can use biomass collected to replace diesel when drying grains in Brasil or Paraguay for example. But using biomass feedstock to produce energy in all the ways we know will be critical and we need to respect sustainability criteria. And then a system that can promote reforestation is possible. Agroforestry or any other woody or herbaceos MANAGED PERENNIAL SYSTEM to produce energy on those degraded lands are just a beginning for a new bio based economy.
Biomass produced from reforestation is renewable if managed properly. We are not supporters of not sustainable methods, deforestation or first generation biofuels replacing woods. Any plantation for biomass should be managed sustainably to respect soil carbon and nutrient balances, water cycling and biodiversity. New plantations can be managed and biomass extractions are compatible to respect environmental needs and produce renewable energy.
Today, it is very well known that wildfires can be avoid when a native forest is reasonably managed and biomass stem wood and fallen branches are handled out to be use for Bioenergy purposes.
Despite of environmental benefits, the replacement of expensive and not renewable fossil energy often generates rural employment, sustainable income and wealth.
4) CURRENT SCENARIO IS NOT SUSTAINABLE (BY FAR!)
Several policies are not promoting sustainable patterns. Governments givce riority to cash annual crops to obtain profits and they mostly don’t care about sustainabiity in the long term. At the same time, many countries face dramatic challenges regarding firewood or biomass as we see today On Latin America or Asia where deforestation by ranchers, slash and burn and soybean and palm plantations have almost no policies to maximize social welfare and are 100% NOT sustainable in the long term. some countries like Paraguay have declared biomass energy emergency and reforestation for firewood is expected to be a major priority.
European Common policy and crops
Some good examples can be found if one analyzes the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms and historical agricultural policy trends in Europe. The CAP accounts for about 38 percent of the EU’s budget.
Basically, Europe wants a greener continent. They admit subsidies dependence, high subsidies for unsustainable food system, lack of rotations and monocropping systems, excessive rates for fertilizer uses and need of promotion for organic farming and best practices.
More options are needed, lower agricultural risks, better inssurance systems for farmers, higher quality products and lower (and informed) footprint and competitive energy uses.
Biomass can play a significant role is used in rural areas to interact with agri-industries. From biogas and dairy production systems to gasifiers or bio- heat in breweries and distilleries, or power stations that can supply greener electricity to the grid, many significant sinergies could improve the current situation and many of them are commercially adopted already with existing tested technologies. Add to this the upcoming trends we see with advanced biofuels which will require significant amounts of straw and woody biomass in rural areas..
Perennial pastures and short rotation forestry are both viable options with very low inputs and can be a profitable business for the long term in particular where market limits some food alternatives. A good example to understand the trends is the abolition of the milk quota system (subsidies) expected in 2015. It will certainly impact directly on grasslands and larger areas previously cultivated with perennial grasses and promote intensification of milk system. Biomass uses and sinergies is the only way to allow a sustainable production system (e.g. biogas production from perennial grasses providing energy to facilities).
But if we are going to be strict with biofuels and food, then how we prevent food insecurity? In this post we address that issue: read “HOW BIOMASS CAN PREVENT FOOD SECURITY“.
The true now, is that an existing lack of policies and promotion of permanent or perennial grassland, shrubs, bushes, native managed forestry and dedicated plantations for biobased products will require very soon a holistic management of resources. This is the only way to limit expansion of most impacting activities for food and energy and promote realistic sustainable solutions with great sinergies. This is also a good way to solve out the big problems on indirect land use changes.
The worst scenario in the EU is just beginning to approach because several subsidies are not sustainable and farmers in US, Latin America, Africa and Asian markets are just starting to become more competitve. Farmers and policies should change in Europe and some countries with fragile semi arid and low competitive agriculture like Spain are facing a big challenge. The trends in Europe are clear and the commission looks for a big challenge in 2020 called “Living well within the limits of our planet“
Another big issue are trading barriers that are currently being eliminated. Several products begin to get inside EU from Northern Africa, Asia or Latin America. More certifications and regulations are also expected to protect Europe and energy usage for transport of biobased products (including food) is being considered for regulations. Wood pellets are increasingly being imported each year to European markets, Agricultural subsidies are expected to be lower and most analyists and policy makers show that the international community wants environmental services and renewable energies associated to best agricultural practices. In Europe even organic food is encouraged by the Commission at the time more and more land abandonment happens because EU import commodities including cereals and meat that are not so competitive in the union. Several “landscape” systems are possible to be considered in order to have lower water usage, higher carbon to the soil and improvment of biodiversity that can be achieved through MAINLY when biomass perennial systems are implemented.
Big food suppliers
Another great example of NOT sustainable food production system is the one promoted by soybean monocultures in countries experiencing too fast changes towards oil export like Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. Their approach to insect and weed management on GMO soybean depends upon the heavy use of a few biocides to control pests. And most of these pests are large problems mainly because of the biological simplification of the agricultural system.
This simplification—represented by huge areas devoted to only one or two crops on very large farms for many years with little uncultivated area—requires more pesticides, because pests can more easily build up on crops when they are adapted to these crops and practices. Soybean mono cultures have been reported to promote nematodes and long term diseases like Rhizoctonia, a fungus with resistant structures that can stay for decades in the soil once farmers repeat soybean several years without any rotation.
Many pests are selective about the crops they infect or consume, so alternating (or rotating) crops reduces the need for pesticides (see sidebar). For examples, in much of the Corn Belt, corn rootworms are not big problems when corn is rotated with soybeans or other crops, because rootworms only thrive on corn.
Some good selected videos to start understainding about this are here below:
90 seconds thinking about soil
Soybean and corn monocultures (lack of rotations with grasslands) are also good example on policies that are simply not sustainable in the long term. Fortunately there is still some rotation in many agriculural countries, however several not competitive regions in Brazil, Argentina, US, Russia and China as well other important food suppliers, could find a great benefit introducing sustainable rotations. Managing semiarid lands can find a good advantage on water resources as some biomass alternatives consume less water. Additionally, large areas have no access to markets and can produce power to the grid.
Again, rotations and biomass covers are needed and NOW.
US farmers to stay in unproductive and saturated markets.
A Heritage Foundation study published some notes, “Farm subsidies are intended to raise farmer incomes by remedying low crop prices. Instead, they promote overproduction and therefore lower prices further. Expensive programs to restrict plantings are then implemented to raise prices back up.”. Check out here.
See last developments and trends in United States and you will only see nature push us towards a biobased economy and less subsidies for food. Some critics against obesity are also part of this discussion.
5) ONLY PERENNIALS HAVE LOW INPUTS AND RESIDUES ARE NOT ENOUGHTO ACHIEVE THE TARGETS
As we always say, biomass residues are just not enough.
Europe has been experiencing a massive valorization of biomass because it can replace fuel oil, gas and other polluting and not sustainable forms of energy. And next energy shortages are expected more than ever before. The Environmental European Agency has warned about residues and claim an increasing need to grow sustainable bioenergy crops. Check their report here: EEA (2013).
A Holistic management to combat dezertification (now we can do it for renewable energy as well)
Allan Savory, is a Zimbabwean biologist, farmer, soldier, exile, environmentalist, and winner of the 2003 Banksia International Awardand the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. He is the originator of holistic management. Savory has said, “only livestock can save us.” Through reversing desertification, he believes rangeland soil has the ability to sequester vast amounts of CO2.
Savory never studied the sinergies between their agri-ecological systems for cattle with controlled grazing methods and holistic approach for biomass conversion technologies that now are ready at commercial scale as we see today.
However, the concepts are very similar. Huge carbon sequestration from perennials can help desertified lands to produce goods including bio-energy.
A small gasifier, boilers or heaters but also digesters, fermenters and many other facilities use residues and biomass from cultivated species.
The great advantages published in his book on rotations and managed cuttings for grasslands, are possible to be considered for bioenergy systems and feedstock.
Biogas and energy crops are already very feasible. Our company is involved today in the most amazing project with energy crops for biogas in the tropics. Additionally, biogas production systems are changing and more variable feedstock possibilties are becoming technically feasible. Several digesters are compatible with perennial pastures and silage that can be used both for cattle and dedicated energy crops in the same farm at several scales in developed or developing countries.
We let you here some good examples in different countries that you will find of your interest about this approach:
Agroforestry and silvopastures are compatibe with firewood and other forms of biomass for energy.
Silvopasture: 30 Years of Applying Research and Innovation. Significant experiences on agroforestry, silvopastures, shrubs and short rotation forestry in marginal lands