Marginal Land For Energy Crop Production: A Solution For Food Security?

marginal land-arundo


Benefits of energy crop cultivation on marginal land

Decrease of arable land and the prospects of marginal land

Population growth, the growing number of animal stock, and the expansion of the renewable energy sector have led to a sharp decrease in the amount of arable land worldwide. Increased interest in the bioenergy sector has contributed to land-use pressures, aggravating the competition for the already scarce natural resources (land, water, etc.) with traditional agriculture and food production practices. This created various socioeconomic and environmental concerns, one of which is food security. These problems influenced stakeholders to consider the use of marginal land as a promising solution for the biomass dilemma. This leads to greater focus on the agro-energy sector, in particular, the cultivation of energy crops on low quality marginal land. If one would begin sing less productive marginal land, we can overtake previous negative trade-offs in the bioenergy sector.

Food security versus energy production

“Food security exists when all people – at all times – have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (World Food Summit, 1996).

FAO estimates that around 821 million people (one out of every nine people in the world) are considered undernourished. As food security is being a highly multidimensional issue, it is argued that the new demand for bioenergy also plays a significant part in the matter. The increased competition for natural resources stimulated by the ‘food vs energy’ (or in other words: food crops and biofuels) controversy is said to be one of the causes of food price spikes that occurred in 2007 and 2008. The Gallagher Review (2008) states, that biofuels have had the potential to cause stress on food markets by, (i) diverting crops away from food production to fuel an example including the usage of corn to produce bioethanol (a significant crop that supply both animal and human feed/foodstock); (ii) farmers became more encouraged to use their land for biomass production and (iii) it has caused a sharp rise in food crop prices. With 21,000 people dying every hour from hunger, developed countries producing fuel from food crops raises many questions. A sustainably managed agricultural sector is vital for human survival, therefore we need to find a solution for a thriving and sustainable bioenergy industry. The report concluded that with the prioritization of the use of marginal land and avoiding arable land suitable for food production, we could ensure the sustainable future of the bioenergy sector.

Arundo Donax on marginal land

The potential of marginal land paves the way for new opportunities in the agricultural sector to increase production and productivity rates. It can bring forth rural development, agricultural diversification and new climate change mitigation practices (Dauber & Miyake, 2016). By planting energy crops in areas where farming is currently unprofitable and where it would not compete with food production, we could ensure that bioenergy production takes place in the most sustainable way. Furthermore, locally grown energy could provide additional income for farmers with fewer inputs and lower costs.

However, not all crops can thrive on these low soil quality regions. Arundo Donax is well known for its wide scope of adaptability to a broad range of environments. Arundo’s ability to grow even on marginal land, e.g. on salty, excessively alkaline, temporarily flooded soil or on ones that are contaminated with agricultural or industrial chemical substances, makes it the perfect energy crop for set-aside land (Czakó & Márton, 2010). With its lifespan of 25-30 years, Arundo could provide high biomass yields annually when harvested on the widely available marginal lands.

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