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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Could bioenergy save the bees?

Over the past few months, stories about the dramatic die-off of bee colonies have grabbed headlines. In the U.S., the situation is critical, with the phenomenon - dubbed "colony collapse disorder" (CCD) - eliminating anywhere between 30 and 70 percent of all bee-hives. The situation is not much better in Europe. According to many scientists, the collapse of bee colonies is due to a complex cocktail of factors: the use of pesticides and insecticides, the emergence of a destructive mite which helps spread a deadly virus, a changing climate, the reliance on monocultures and a general lack of biodiversity. Tackling this crisis is crucial, because bees pollinate a whole range of crops - from oranges to soy beans - which provide 30% of all our food.

Perhaps the key to solving the problem can be found in growing energy crops. Here is how and why.

Polycultures of native prairie grasses and flowers in the U.S., studied for their use in bioenergy systems. Credit: Tallgrass Prairie Center.

  • Energy crops for use in the production of power and heat must achieve only one main goal: yielding a large amount of lignocellulosic biomass. It doesn't matter whether the crop yields sugar or oil-seeds, grows tall or dense; it must yield biomass, preferrably low in ash content. That's it. Other requirements, like the establishment and harvesting costs play a role, but are of secondary importance.
  • This very limited requirement - the aim to obtain high biomass yields - allows for the selection of crops from a very diverse list of candidates. Energy crops can be combined in smart systems, and restore biodiverse-rich ecosystems. A well-studied and key example concerns so-called "low-input high-diversity systems", which yield more biomass than monocultures, and which offer important ecosystem services, such as the sequestration of carbon in soils. Moreover, such biodiverse polycultures require almost no artificial inputs like fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides (earlier post).
  • On this basis, scientists can begin to design biodiverse energy crop systems which contain a variety of native flowering crops, rich in nectar, which would form a haven for pollinators like bees. These systems would be optimized for biomass production, and, besides sequestering carbon in soils, would re-establish the key ecosystem service of providing "health recovery zones" for pollinators, which guarantee the resilience of our food production system.
  • Such bee-and-biomass centered crop systems would eliminate all the factors suspected of contributing to CCD: they would reduce the need for pesticides and insecticides, they would counter-balance monoculture-based farming, they would contribute to tackling climate change, and they would restore biodiversity.
  • It would be interesting to analyse the feasibility of this broad concept. Farmers could be stimulated to establish such biodiverse "biomass corridors" throughout the agricultural landscape. Depending on the system, different incentives could make these corridors commercially viable: (1) the carbon market could provide credits for the sequestration of carbon in soils; (2) the same market could offer utilities and energy producers incentives to use biomass in power plants; (3) farmers could be paid for re-establishing the conditions needed to maintain healthy pollinator populations, which offer ecosystem services of an immense value (according to the USDA, bees alone contribute around $15 billion a year to American agriculture).
In all likeliness, the bee crisis can only be solved by a large, concerted effort that changes our agricultural landscape and practises in a structural manner. Tackling each of the suspected factors involved in CCD separately, without addressing the deeper systemic problems, would probably not suffice. Moreover, it would be naive to assume that farmers can give up the current food farming system based on monocultures. This system of large-scale, input-dependent, intensive agriculture dominates farming because of clear economic reasons.

However, the emergence of a competitive biomass sector could well be exactly what we need to restore the landscape in favor of pollinators. This sector potentially has the scale to transform agriculture away from monocultures to polycultures, as well as the necessary commercial strengths, because biomass is the most competitive of the renewable energy options. Incentivising farmers via ecosystem-service credits, would make the proposition feasible.

In conclusion, smart energy crop systems could offer the key to solving the bee-crisis, which threatens our entire food system. It will be a matter of designing intelligent cultural complexes based on a biodiverse mix of native crops, selected for yielding high amounts of biomass and including a range of flowering plants that attract pollinators.

Entry ends here - Biopact Team, 2008, CC.
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