Agricultural intensification is eroding the function and services we receive from ecosystems. Transforming corn-dominated landscapes, to include greater areas of perennial bioenergy crops – like native grasslands – may help preserve ecosystem services, while supplying renewable energy. However, gains in ecological sustainability may come at the expense of biomass production and economic viability.
Rather than large regions dominated by a single crop type, we may be able to design more sustainable agricultural landscapes by planting different crops in specific locations that optimize crop growth, ecosystem services, and economic gain.
We are modeling a suite of biological and biogeochemical ecosystem functions (like pollination and carbon sequestration) under different bioenergy land use scenarios for Wisconsin, USA. We’re examining how functions vary individually and as a group, using an index of multifunctionality.
We’re finding that, compared to the current land cover and use (see figure panel A), increasing bioenergy production from corn degrades ecosystem multifunctionality (B), whereas using greater areas of perennial and native grassland for bioenergy enhances multifunctionality (C). Promisingly, a “smart” design (D) that takes advantage of highly productive corn in high-fertility soils, and sustainable grasslands in low-fertility soils, while employing low-input crop management (e.g., no-till) provides the greatest benefit for the sustainability. As this work continues we will be looking more closely at trade-offs between ecological and economic sustainability and whether a trade-off is even necessary!