In 2013, the United Nations released a report projecting that the global population will reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. This increase of 2.4 billion people between now and then is already beginning to challenge the world’s agricultural communities to provide adequate food, fuel and fiber while employing sustainable practices that conserve natural resources. The feat becomes more complex when coupled with the increasing demand to grow more bioenergy crops, combat biodiversity declines and regenerate the habitat of agriculturally important insects.
Doug Landis, Michigan State University (MSU) professor of entomology and KBS LTER investigator, is leading an interdisciplinary team of scientists in a multiyear investigation to explore the role of perennial bioenergy crops in supplying a host of services rising in demand.
“Ecologists developed the term ‘ecosystem services’ to account for the benefits that biodiversity provides to humans,” said the MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “A variety of organisms and ecological processes provide ecosystem services on farmlands that are fundamental to crop production and society at large — soil formation, nutrient cycling, crop yields, water filtration, flood prevention, recreational opportunities, medicines, pollination and pest control are just a few examples.”
Landis, with input from scientists from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), MSU AgBioResearch and MSU Extension, has determined that these services are enhanced when perennial bioenergy cropping systems are incorporated into agricultural landscapes.
He explained that much of the farmland in southern Michigan is used to grow corn, soybeans and/or wheat. Though those crops provide a set of ecosystem services, he said others such as switchgrass, mixed prairie grasses and flowering plants supply many new or improved services across multiple pieces of land.
“Mixed prairies, for example, support the breeding populations of several threatened grassland birds, provide stopover habitat as the birds migrate south in the fall, support flowers that promote reproduction of pollinators, and contain diverse plant communities that provide habitat for predatory insects and spiders that attack crop pests,” he explained. “Moreover, some of these benefits spill over into adjacent crops, increasing biocontrol of aphids in soybeans and boosting pollination of fruits and vegetables.”
Perennial crops provide an opportunity to alter and shape the landscape in a way that annual crops can’t. So Landis and his GLBRC colleagues are also focusing on understanding the best ways to use perennial crops in agricultural systems. Past research enabled them to understand the important roles of perennial crops in agricultural landscapes. Now they’re exploring efficient ways to build new landscapes in a way that provides the most benefit for the largest number of people.
This part of Landis’ research has been used by groups that are creating computerized decision-support systems. Landis wants to equip communities with tools that will lead to informed decisions about the best way to incorporate bioenergy crops into landscapes. Because many ecosystem benefits accrue at the landscape scale — not the farm scale — it will be important for growers to coordinate their planning activities.
Linking geographic information systems with models that Landis helped develop is the basis of one such decision-support system. Within the system, users see a map of their neighborhood and can designate specific areas of their farms for potential conversion to bioenergy crops. Within a few seconds, the models display the projected influence on ecosystem services and economic returns. Users have found virtually manipulating landscape designs and seeing the potential results to be a powerful learning tool.
“I’m part of a larger consortium that conducts multi-stakeholder meetings that use these decision-support tools and bring together landowners, conservation groups, farm suppliers and all the people you might imagine who would need to be present to decide if bioenergy cropping makes sense for their local community,” Landis said.
Currently, there isn’t much incentive for farmers to coordinate their planning efforts. Most farmers act independently, but Landis envisions future agricultural policy that could provide a reward to farmers who coordinate their activities with others.
“If society wants to take advantage of larger ecosystem services, science-based polices are needed to inform the design of resilient agricultural landscapes,” he concluded. “Our key finding is that the linkage between biodiversity and ecosystem services depends not only on the choice of bioenergy crop but also on its location relative to other habitats.
“In the past, agricultural landscapes developed by happenstance. Now we have the knowledge, the tools and the incentive to actually design these systems. This a real opportunity to ask the right questions and, hopefully, design better landscapes for the future.”