some potential for miscanthus as a bioenergy crop, while switchgrass loses again

So today I’m sharing a study completed by some researchers here at Colorado State University, along with some folks at UI Urbana-Champaign using the DAYCENT model.

They basically asked what would happen if instead of using corn to make ethanol, we used switchgrass.  This is an important question because close to 40% of the corn we grow is used to make ethanol + animal feed from the leftover dried distiller grains.

They found that replacing corn would reduce GHG emission, reduce nutrient leaching, and increase soil organic matter (SOC).  These are all good things!

But can we get the same yield from the same land and still be better off?  Unfortunately not.  Not yet at least.  While miscanthus did have higher yields, switchgrass didn’t, and neither would be able to replace the animal feed that is a byproduct of the grain to ethanol process.  Best case scenario, as they present in the paper, is a partial replacement of corn with miscanthus.  With miscanthus going to ethanol, we can return some of the corn to the food supply (still leaving a 3% gap from current production).

Why did I say not yet earlier?  Part (or most) of the reason for this failure is because we are trying to compare a crop that has been the focus of breeding efforts for decades (plus thousands of years of traditional farmer breeding) to a wild species with literally no attempts to improve its agronomic characteristics.  This is a big point that I think needs to be made.  All of these new technologies from algae, to cellulosic will require at some point for us to optimize the biology of these systems, as we have done with agriculture for food production.  Recent efforts (including some of our upcoming projects) hope to change this, but breeding takes time and money through dedicated long term projects.

Notably, they include a discussion of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), but claim that land use would not change as a result of the switch on existing lands.  Presumably this corn to switchgrass/miscanthus switch would be driven by policy, but somewhere somehow we need to produce the animal feed that wouldn’t be produced by switchgrass/miscanthus..

The usual caveats of these types of modeling studies apply, mostly there are alot of assumptions and averaging of results over large areas which may not be realistic.  Additionally the logistics and policy that would enable this are not discussed but would be pretty complex, especially because we aren’t very good at turning cellulosic material into ethanol in an economically profitable manner, and certainly don’t have existing capacity to handle it.  And how would we convince the farmers to move from an annual crop that they can switch next year depending on prices, to a perennial, that they are basically “stuck” with for a while.

Not to say these issues can’t be overcome.  And as a society we have to weigh the costs and benefits of intensively managed corn based on more variables than simply yield.  But that is for economists and policy makers – I’m just a biologist 🙂

PS: I had no idea you can cite your own article, within your own article, but they did! (multiple times)

Here is the reference:
Davis, S., Parton, W., Del Grosso, S., Keough, C., Marx, E., Adler, P., & DeLucia, E. (2011). Impact of second-generation biofuel agriculture on greenhouse-gas emissions in the corn-growing regions of the US Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment DOI: 10.1890/110003

This entry was posted in climate change and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to some potential for miscanthus as a bioenergy crop, while switchgrass loses again

  1. Ezelna says:

    Investing in the World’s Leading Biomass Crop

    Miscanthus Giganteus, a large, warm-weather perennial grass, has been identified through thorough research as the most sustainable and highest yielding biomass crop on the planet. A unique new investment project in Gambia, West Africa, allows canny investors to get in on the ground floor of the growing global biofuel industry.

    International private investment company Insight Group PLC recently launched its unique BIO E-GRASS™ biofuel investment project aiming to plant 500 hectares of the leading biomass crop in Gambia, West Africa, a country identified by the company’s independent Market Intelligence and Research Unit as the ideal region for large-scale production of Miscanthus Giganteus, both climatically and economically.

    Insight Group PLC’s identification of Miscanthus Giganteus as a unique and secure investment opportunity is backed by the opinions of Neal Gutterson, CEO of Mendel Biotechnology, a leading player in the cleantech and bioenergy fields.

    Mendel’s BioEnergy Seeds and Feedstocks business, in collaboration with BP, is currently developing elite, proprietary varieties of Miscanthus Giganteus which will increase the energy grass’s viability and importance as the key component of a global sustainable energy revolution.

    Gutterson says, “Miscanthus is a great product in field, but is hard to establish though spectacular once established. Establishing it through tissue culture or rhizomes is difficult so we need to change to a seeded system. We are now on track for seed product to be available in 2014.”

    It’s predicted that the seeded product will drive adoption of Miscanthus Giganteus up to 250,000 acres in the US alone by 2016.

    Ultimately, Gutterson predicts there will be a world trade in biomass developing, rather than nation-by-nation. “It will be an international, interdependent world trade in biomass.”

    Apart from higher yields as compared to other biomass crops, such as switchgrass and maize, Miscanthus Giganteus can be grown on barren ground unsuitable for food production, is a perennial crop and sequesters large amounts of carbon in its root system.

    In Gambia, Insight Group PLC’s BIO E-GRASS™ plantations will be grown on barren land not currently in use for food crop production and will create steady employment for more than 200 local villagers. In addition, the project’s experienced operator, Platinum Management, will plant 1000 hectares of rice plantations, with each harvest distributed to workers and local villages. The project has received backing from the Gambian government, which offers favourable conditions for foreign investment.

    For a comprehensive outline of the unique BIO E-GRASS™ investment opportunity, download the BIO E-GRASS™: Investing in your Future brochure at

    Insight Group Plc is leading the way in responsible investing throughout Africa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s