January 13, 2014
When it comes to biofuels, corn leads the all-important category of biomass yield. However, focusing solely on yield comes at a high price, scientists say.
In this week's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers show that looking at the big picture allows other biofuel crops, such as native perennial grasses, to score higher as viable alternatives.
"We believe our findings have major implications for bioenergy research and policy," said Doug Landis, a biologist at Michigan State University (MSU) and one of the paper's lead authors.
"Biomass yield is obviously a key goal, but it appears to come at the expense of many other environmental benefits that society may desire from rural landscapes."
Landis and a team of researchers from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site compared three potential biofuel crops: corn, switchgrass and mixes of native prairie grasses and flowering plants.
Kellogg Biological Station is one of 26 such NSF LTER sites in ecosystems from grasslands to coral reefs, deserts to mountains around the world.
"Sustainability, food security, biodiversity, biofuel production--all are important to an increasing human population," says Saran Twombly, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research through the LTER Program. "This is a superb example of how fundamental ecological research can assist human well-being."
The scientists measured the diversity of plants, pests and beneficial insects, birds and microbes that consume methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.