Learn approaches to help promote biodiversity on the farm while growing biofuel feedstocks.
Corn and soy fields in Minnesota. Photo: US EPA and National Archive and Record Administration; Wikimedia Commons.
Agriculture and Biodiversity
Biodiversity is the variation of life at all levels, from genes to organisms to populations. Healthy ecosystems tend to have greater biodiversity.
Most biofuel feedstocks come from agricultural crops grown in highly disturbed ecosystems with relatively low biodiversity. Agricultural practices that tend to make farms less diverse than wild lands include:
- large monocultures
- fertilizer and pesticide applications
- weed management
Impacts of Biofuels on Biodiversity
A surviving fragment of Amazon rainforest surrounded by cleared farmland in Brazil's Mato Grosso province. NASA image
Using more land to grow biofuel feedstock crops could lead to expansion of cultivated areas, reducing biodiversity by displacing forests, grasslands, peatlands and wetlands. Biofuel crops could also reduce biodiversity through the spread of invasive species intended for biofuel feedstock production and through pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides used for biofuel crop production (Sala et al. 2009).
Biofuel production could also enhance biodiversity by reducing net carbon emissions from fuel burning, slowing the rate of global climate change (Sala et al. 2009).
Industrial farms tend to be less diverse than native ecosystems. Low-input farms that mimic native ecosystems -- for example, mixed perennial grasses in native grassland -- may be slightly less diverse, while those like corn monoculture in native forestland dramatically disturb their native ecosystems. Figure modified from Vandermeer and Perfecto (1995) by Michael Bomford.
A range of alternative approaches to biofuel feedstock production could conserve biodiversity:
- Establishment of biofuel production systems that mimic a region's native ecosystems (Vandermeer & Perfecto 1995, Tilman et al. 2006)
Organic and low-input production of biofuel feedstock crops (Ziesemer 2007).
- Growing mixtures of biofuel feedstock crops instead of monocultures (Tilman et al. 2006, Ranganathan et al. 2007).
- Using perennials for biofuel feedstock instead of annuals (Tilman et al. 2006).
- Growing biofuel crops on small acreages on diversified farms (Sala et al. 2009).
- Using organic waste for biofuel feedstock instead of dedicated crops.
- Rotating annual feedstock crops.
For Additional Information
- Jai Ranganathan, R.J. Ranjit Daniels, M.D. Subash Chandran, Paul Ehrlich, and Gretchen Daily. 2008. Sustaining biodiversity in ancient tropical countryside. PNAS 105: 17852-17854.
- Osvaldo E. Sala, Dox Sax, and Heather Leslie. 2009. Biodiversity Consequences of Increased Biofuel Production. pp. 127-137 In R.W. Howarth and S. Bringezu [eds]. Biofuels: Environmental Consequences and Interactions with Changing Land Use. Cornell University.
- John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto. 1995. Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rainforest Destruction. Food First, Oakland, CA.
- Jodi Ziesemer. 2007. Energy Use in Organic Food Systems. Natural Resources Management and Environmental Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
- David Tilman, Jason Hill,and Clarence Lehman. 2006. Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass. Science 314: 1598-1600.
Mike Morris, National Center For Appropriate Technology (ATTRA)
- Andrew R. Moss, SARE Fellow, University of Maryland