How One Farm Is Growing Food and Biofuels While Helping to Save the Environment

There’s an obstacle to growing more crops that can be converted to advanced biofuels that help fight climate change: Farmers.


Growers are often reluctant to stop raising cash crops like corn on a gamble they can sell switchgrass, camelina and other inedible plants that can be transformed into low-carbon biofuels to replace gasoline. And then there’s the risk of coming under attack if farmers cease growing food for people and start growing biofuel crops for cars. This food versus fuel debate has dogged efforts to expand the use of next-generation biofuels, particularly in the Midwest of the United States, where 35 percent of the corn crop ends up being processed into ethanol.

Now researchers at the United States Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory think they have a solution that allows farmers to profit from growing both food and advanced biofuels while benefitting the environment. 

They planted willow on a portion of a corn farm in the Illinois town of Fairbury where the poor soil would have required a large amount of fertilizer and pesticides to grow corn. Fast-growing willow trees produce large amounts of sugar that can be converted into biofuels. Morever, willows thrive in poor soil and require little nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which pose threats to aquatic life when it runs off into rivers and streams

So, Why Should You Care?

It’s a triple win: Farmers make maximum use of their land, the environment is spared excessive fertilizer and pesticide use, and increasing the supply of biofuels reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

“This would work for any farm that grows any crop,” said Cristina Negri, principal agronomist and environmental engineer at Argonne National Laboratory.

“We’re testing portions of a field of arable land that are usually cultivated but are not very productive because of poorer soil,” she said. “We argue that growing bioenergy crops can be a better fit than corn. Adding fertilizer to this land would create even more water quality problems, as the soil is not able to retain them and thus they are leached into the water.”

Nitrogen is a primary component of fertilizers. And the difference in crop productivity comes from how different soils absorb nitrogen — rich soil soaks it up like a sponge, while poor soil lets it leak like a colander.

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