Six crop species, maize, sugarcane, soybean, palm oil, rapeseed and wheat yield 80% of global industrial biofuel and that costs to people and planet.
That’s one of the findings of Kew’s State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report and the Senior Research Leader at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Dr Olwen Grace spoke to FNZ about the work of this research: “Even the authors of this report were astounded that there are so few crop species holding up the vast majority of the industrial biofuel industry.
“We anticipated that there would not be many species but this surprised us. I think the reason behind that is primarily historic. Overwhelmingly research has focused on a very small number of crops that are grown as monocultures in predominantly the northern hemisphere.
“But there is a huge array of alternatives out there in the plant kingdom and is striking that more research has not been done to date.”
Crop production is one of several causes of deforestation in the Amazon, releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and threatening species. Sugarcane for bioenergy is one such crop.
The report suggests some 840 million people, mostly living in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Oceania, still have no access to electricity. And three billion people lack non-polluting cooking fuels and technologies.
The use of traditional wood fuels for cooking, meanwhile, accounts for 1.9–2.3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. In some countries, such as Nepal and Uganda, unsustainable harvesting of wood for fuels supports 82–90% of the energy used.
Mrs Grace advocates that there are many plants and indeed a lot of fungi that can enhance the energy extraction process and that there are crops that can produce better energy on a small footprint of land with less carbon.
She claims that fungi could be key to future sustainable energy production: “The fungi kingdom is much less well known by biologists. There are millions of species. There is a lot of opportunities to use fungi to extract more energy from plants.”
She believes that the world can step away from monocultures and use plant diversity which is not only good for the environment but for people as well.
In East Africa, indigenous tree species, Croton megalocarpus, supports sustainable seed oil industry that provides biofuel for electricity.
In Kenya, there is an enterprise, which sources more than 3,000 tonnes of nuts every year – it processes the nuts to extract oil that replaces diesel in generator engines while husks are converted to livestock feed and organic fertiliser.
Problem plants, such as the river-choking water hyacinth are among species being explored as new sources of bioenergy.
“By diversifying farming systems, doing more research on greener alternatives, with a wider collaboration of engineers and scientists and political will world can achieve a cleaner future.”