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Energy crops must be planted wisely to minimise loss of biodiversity says study

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Bioenergy is expected to play a substantial role in the global energy mix, with low-quality or abandoned agricultural land commonly proposed for the growing of energy crops.

Analysis from the University of Surrey has however shown that planting energy crops on existing agricultural land could minimise harm to biodiversity compared to planting them elsewhere. Planting in these locations could then allow agricultural land in other places to be restored to natural habitats, maximising the benefits to biodiversity.

Sophie Tudge, who carried out the research at Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability, explains:

“Our study suggests that, as far as biodiversity is concerned, it is always best to restore farmland to nature rather than re-plant it with energy crops.

“Yet, we are realists. In the future, more fuel will come from crops, and it is far better to plant them on existing farms than destroy remaining natural habitats. We have shown that where you plant those crops makes a huge difference to how many species continue to thrive.”

The study, which has been published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, calculated the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) – a number indicating nature’s health – in different land uses, including energy crop plantations. This information was then compared with maps of land use, crop yields and priority areas for restoration to estimate the effects on BII of changes in land use, due to bioenergy expansion. 

The study also highlighted other factors that should influence planting sites for energy crops, including food security, incentives for farmers and surrounding energy infrastructure. 

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