Converting corn cropland to Miscanthus will result in an a 82 per cent increase in bioenergy feedstocks and switch the US Corn Belt from a net greenhouse gas source to a sink, according to research published by Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
The research paper points out how the switch from corn to next-generation ethanol feedstocks, Miscanthus and switchgrass, could produce more food, more fuel, less nitrogen and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Colorado State University, the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service and the Energy Biosciences Institute, focused on how changing planting patterns could affect agricultural outputs and the environment.
Both switchgrass and Miscanthus are considered potential biofuel energy crops. Both are species of perennial grasses and switchgrass is already grown on federal Conservation Reserve Program land, while Miscanthus produces twice the yields compared to switchgrass or corn and has minimum agricultural inputs.
During 2009, 30 per cent of the 2009 corn crop was dedicated to ethanol. The research points out that redirecting the land on which that corn was planted could have a significant impact on domestic land use without triggering major food and feed market changes. The researchers used a computer model, known as DAYCENT, to stimulate how soil nutrients, carbon exchange, nitrogen runoff and other factors would change if alternative biofuel crops were grown instead of corn crops.
If only 30 per cent of the lowest-productivity corn cropland were converted to miscanthus growth, a 82 per cent increase in bioenergy feedstock would be created. Nitrogen leaching would be reduced by 15 per cent to 22 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions would fall between 29 per cent and 473 per cent.
The research confirms the strong advantages of bioenergy crops and points out which biofuel crops are the most beneficial in a given location.