Researchers Find Bioenergy Crops Provide Critical Ecosystem Services

December 12, 2017

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M. Cristina Negri  Principal Agronomist/Environmental Engineer, Argonne National Laboratory

Author: M. Cristina Negri, Principal Agronomist/ Environmental Engineer (former Laboratory Relationship Manager), Argonne National Laboratory

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Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Argonne, Illinois, are examining innovative new agricultural landscapes that incorporate perennial bioenergy crops to provide environmental benefits, such as improved nutrient management and pollinator nesting. This work prioritizes economic output while simultaneously providing important services to the environment. 

Through a collaboration with the University of Michigan, ANL researchers found that incorporating bioenergy crops—such as switchgrass, willow, and prairie grasses—into the landscape can not only improve water quality by managing nutrients, but also potentially improve wild bee habitats.  Maintaining habitats for natural pollinators, like bees, is a critical factor in ensuring U.S. crop productivity. While not essential for corn and soybeans, natural pollinators are critical for the reproduction of around 80% of agricultural crops.

Bees have made headlines recently due to their rapidly declining populations, as they are currently under threat due to habitat reduction, potentially toxic chemicals, and pests. A recent assessment of the status of wild bees in the United States found that the bee population declined 23% from 2008 to 2013. In light of the rapidly declining bee populations, many organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are searching for strategies to enhance the habitat of these critical pollinators. 

In the past year, ANL and its collaborators have published two peer-reviewed articles1 that examine potential benefits of incorporating perennial bioenergy crops in a midwestern agricultural landscape. Both papers provide a basis for evaluating additional benefits of bioenergy crops, both in nutrient management and in the improvement of wild bee nesting habitats. Both of these benefits are critical for resource management and economic sustainability. Fertilizers are expensive but necessary for farmers to maintain soil quality. Finding ways to efficiently manage soil nutrients can translate into economic benefits by reducing the need for fertilizer, while improved pollinator habitat is essential for crop productivity. These two studies, which examine two distinct environmental effects of the same landscape configuration, show that there are ways to proactively design bioenergy systems that benefit different stakeholders and the environment. 

ANL’s research is a part of the Bioenergy Technologies Office’s sustainability portfolio, which is working to advance scientific knowledge and inform research and development strategies to improve the productivity and long-term viability of advanced bioenergy systems. 

1John B. Graham, Joan I. Nassauer, William S. Currie, Herbert Ssegane, and M. Cristina Negri, “Assessing Wild Bee Abundance in Perennial Bioenergy Landscapes: Effects of Bioenergy Crop Composition, Landscape Configuration, and Bioenergy Crop Area,” Landscape Ecology 32, no. 5 (2017): 1023–1037, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10980-017-0506-y; Herbert Ssegane and M. Cristina Negri, “An Integrated Landscape Designed for Commodity and Bioenergy Crops in a Tile-Drained Agricultural Watershed,” Journal of Environmental Quality 45, no. 5 (2016): 1588–1596, doi:10.2134/jeq2015.10.0518.

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