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LIFEnews features 2011

Improving ecosystem service provision from agricultural practices

(Photo: LIFE06 ENV/IT/000266)(Photo: LIFE06 ENV/IT/000266)

LIFE support for agricultural communities comes in many forms, including studies that identify practical options to help farmers find economically viable ways of mitigating climate change. 

Ecosystem services have been referred to as “the benefits provided by ecosystems to humans”. Agricultural products like food and drink, energy and textiles rely heavily on ecosystem services provided by biodiversity, such as nutrient cycling, carbon storage, pest regulation and pollination. Promoting the healthy functioning of agricultural ecosystems thus helps to ensure the resilience of EU farm environments as they modernise to meet the growing demands for agri-commodities.

LIFE has been at the forefront of this field and the Programme’s project portfolio contains an interesting series of innovations that show how farmers and rural development authorities can strengthen ecosystem linkages within agriculture. These projects demonstrate new techniques that can be applied to promote resilience against forces like climate change and so mitigate potential threats that might impede the ability of farm ecosystems to deliver essential goods and services. See the LIFE website’s soil, land-use and agriculture’ thematic section for a full review of these projects.

One recently completed addition to LIFE’s agricultural ecosystem project list is the award winning Seq-Cure initiative from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. This project has shown how organic waste materials, such as livestock manure and digestate from biogas generators, can be used beneficially by farmers as a soil supplement to boost the growth of biomass fuel sources for renewable energy. Seq-Cure won one of this year’s Best of the Best LIFE Environment prizes and represents good practice in a number of areas. In fact its outcomes have been so valuable that Italian authorities used the LIFE project’s results to inform legislation regulating sustainable approaches to biofuel production.

Emissions modelling

Seq-Cure was run by a consortium of partners with strong backgrounds in agricultural research. They were aware that farmers can help to reduce climate change effects by producing biomass as a substitute for fossil fuels, as well as by sequestering CO2 in soil organic carbon. They were also aware that this process needs to be carried out sustainably, and that gaps existed in knowledge about how to quantify flow variations in the carbon cycle arising from different types of biofuel cultivation processes. Better information about how to measure farm impacts on climate change could feed into high level environmental indicators and lead to improved targeting of EU funding for ecosystem service providers.

These goals formed the basis for Seq-Cure’s operations and a LIFE budget of just under €1 million was allocated to co-finance three and half years’ of studies. Much of this time involved managing 39 trial sites at 13 demonstration farms where different biomass crops were grown using different organic waste supplements. Findings were carefully monitored to design, test and validate a new online modelling method for forecasting greenhouse gas emissions from different crop rotations and fertilisation practices.

Short production chains

(Photo: LIFE06 ENV/IT/000266)(Photo: LIFE06 ENV/IT/000266)

In addition to the new emissions model, Seq-Cure’s trial sites also provided constructive data confirming that ecosystem services like carbon storage and nutrient cycling could be enhanced through introducing ‘short production chains’ into bioenergy generation systems. Short production chains require only one or two links between the generators of bioenergy, the producers of biomass fuel sources and the providers of organic fertiliser for biomass cultivation. Mixed and diversified farms offer opportunities to operate the most effective short chain production cycles (via on-farm ‘closed chains’).

Seq-Cure conclusions highlighted sustainable development benefits from short chains that included: lowering of nitrate levels in soils and groundwater; enrichment of organic matter in soil content; reduced emissions of greenhouse gases; less water stress via reduced irrigation requirements; fewer artificial or potentially hazardous chemical inputs; and positive economic returns for rural businesses involved in the chain. Three types of bioenergy production chains were analysed (each of which used different non fossil fuels) and biogas emerged as a more attractive fuel option compared to wood or raw vegetable oil. Seq-Cure staff found that biogas produced more replicable results due to the availability of cost-effective and proven technology as well as relative lack of legal obstacles.

Spurred on by their findings, the Seq-Cure partners were able to secure new external funding to continue their knowledge development work after the LIFE project finished. This exit strategy approach is good practice in LIFE project management. It valorises the work that LIFE set in motion and will lead to even greater awareness about ways to improve supplies of ecosystem services from agricultural practices.

Read more about how the results of this Italian LIFE project could be replicated in your country or region.

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