Masters of magic: using marginal lands for growing industrial crops

Masters of magic: using marginal lands for growing industrial crops
MAGIC will explore the cultivation of industrial crops on marginal land to avoid land use competition with food production

Dr Efthymia Alexopoulou of the Centre for Renewable Sources and Energy Saving (CRES) describes the use of marginal lands for growing industrial crops (MAGIC).

Industrial crops can provide abundant renewable biomass feedstocks for the production of high added-value bio-based commodities (i.e. bioplastics, biolubricants, biochemicals, pharmaceuticals, biocomposites, etc.) and bioenergy. They can be broadly categorised as oil, lignocellulosic, carbohydrate or specialty crops (4FCROPS www.cres.gr/4fcrops; and Crops2Industry www.crops2industry.eu). Most are multipurpose crops offering the opportunity to follow a cascade biorefinery concept to produce value-added bioproducts and bioenergy, thus feeding the bio-based economy.

Prospectively, industrial crops can increase and diversify farmers’ incomes through access to novel bio-based markets (i.e. bulk and fine chemical, biomaterial or bioenergy industries, amongst others), and the possibility to exploit marginal land with limited value for conventional agriculture. In recent years, a debate has emerged regarding food security and land use for bioenergy/industrial non-food crops. Cultivating industrial crops on marginal land unsuitable ­­for food production is consistently proposed as a viable alternative to minimising land use competition for food production, and its adverse effects (direct or indirect) on food security, land-based GHG emissions and biodiversity loss. The term ‘marginal land’ has entered wider political debates, and biofuel crops are now generally promoted and supported on marginal land; nonetheless, marginal land has not yet been unequivocally defined, and there is no clear information on where, when and how much genuine marginal land is available.

Several studies agree on the existence of ~1,350,000 hectares of land in Europe deemed less favourable for conventional agriculture. This land has been either abandoned because of its productivity, or it is used as grassland. Marginal lands for growing industrial crops (MAGIC) is based on the premise that cultivation of selected industrial crops on areas facing natural constraints (e.g. extreme climatic conditions, low soil productivity, steep slope, etc.) can ensure the production of resource-efficient feedstocks, with low indirect land-use change (iLUC), for a growing bio-based industry; and increase farmers’ incomes through access to new markets and the revalorisation of marginal land.

It has been estimated that as many as 2.5 million potentially contaminated sites exist across Europe, with management costs (81% only for remediation) of around €6.5bn per year.1 In the MAGIC project, contaminated and degraded soils will also be included as it is well documented that the proportion of these land types is increasing due to anthropogenic activities. Contaminated soils cannot be used for food or feed production for sanitary reasons, and thus provide great potential for the production of biomass for material or energy use.2

In this context, MAGIC aims at the development of resource-efficient and economically profitable industrial crops to be grown on marginal land. In the long term, this strategy will foster the sustainable development of the EU bio-based economy and will contribute to achieving EU energy and climate targets.

MAGIC consists of proponents, pioneers and key players within the academic and commercial domain of sustainable production chains for industrial crops (breeding, agronomy, harvesting, logistics conversion and end uses) on marginal land. The project will capitalise on the outstanding experience and knowledge gained by partners in previous and ongoing projects on industrial crops and marginal land, maximising its/their impact beyond completion and avoiding duplications. MAGIC will also complement those projects by strengthening the knowhow of the MAGIC consortium within the context of industrial crops on marginal land for a growing bioeconomy. Most of the partners are pioneers in the field of industrial crops and have co-ordinated or participated on the key research projects that had been funded at EU level with a total budget around of €400m.

Key aspects of the MAGIC project

The project began in July 2017 and will run for 48 months. The main project activities will be:

  • To develop an-up-to date database of existing resource-efficient industrial crops, which will provide information on their agronomic characteristics, input requirements, yield performance and qualitative traits for innovative bio-based applications;
  • To identify, through a multi-actor approach inclusive of stakeholders, the most promising industrial crops suitable for production on European land facing natural constraints;
  • To map, characterise and analyse projections of current and future marginal land in Europe facing natural constraints and provide a spatially explicit classification that will serve as a basis for developing sustainable best practice options for industrial crops in Europe;
  • To create new breeding tools and strategies towards better varieties of the selected industrial crops that will be resource-efficient and can be profitably cultivated on marginal land in Europe;
  • To identify and improve appropriate agronomic practices with limited input requirements for the selected resource-efficient industrial crops;
  • To develop suitable harvesting strategies and logistics for the selected industrial crops on marginal land so that the performance of the whole biomass supply chain is optimised;
  • To maximise the impact of MAGIC through the provision of objective information regarding all important sustainability aspects (covering environment, society and economy) of the value chains using scientific, transparent and reproducible methodologies;
  • To analyse success stories of the selected industrial crops in European regions, addressing technical, environmental, economic and social issues and to produce policy recommendations and best practice guidelines in order to promote the appropriate sourcing of renewable materials from marginal land at local/regional level; and
  • To develop, test and disseminate a decision support system (DSS) with the active involvement of farmers and other end users (industry and policymakers).

MAGIC is designed to contribute to the increased and diversified sourcing of renewable materials that are produced by resource-efficient and economically profitable industrial crops grown on marginal land facing natural constraints.

References

  1. Allen B, Kretschmer B, Baldock D, Menadue H, Nanni S and Tucker G. (2014) Space for energy crops – assessing the potential contribution to Europe’s energy future. Report produced for BirdLife Europe, European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment. IEEP, London
  2. Lewandowski I, Schmidt U, Londo M, Faaij A. (2006) The economic value of the phytoremediation function. Agricultural Systems, 89, 68-89

 

Efthymia Alexopoulou, PhD

Responsible for Energy Crops Unit

CRES, Biomass Dept

Greece

ealex@cres.gr

www.cres.gr

This is a commercial article that appeared in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 25. 

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