One of these emissions-reducing initiatives was the European Union (EU)-funded BENWOOD project. Project Coordinator and Director of Energieautark Consulting in Vienna, Thomas Lewis, perceived a “lack of exchange” between agroforestry scientists and practitioners of Short Rotation Forestry (SRF) in Europe and elsewhere. Combining crops with trees and shrubs, agroforestry improves yields and biodiversity and it is practiced worldwide.
“There was [research] in France, Germany, Italy and Poland which had, in part, been neglected,” says Lewis. “I thought it would be useful to have more exchange among those involved,” he explains. Participants were able to exchange their knowledge, experiences, and contacts to build a better understanding of the complexity of agricultural and forestry CO2 reducing projects.
SRF is a form of agroforestry, differing from normal forestry by the use of fast-growing, deciduous (seasonal) trees, which are generally harvested after reaching their economically optimum size in anywhere from 2 to 25 years of growth. The harvested biomass is then used to produce biofuels, a source of renewable energy, therefore contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Aside from biofuels, applications for agroforestry products include biomass gasification, in which a gas is produced from the harvested biomass. This gas can then be used to produce electricity, which is particularly useful in certain rural areas of India, China or Africa which are not connected to the national electricity grid. “This was not a research project per se. It was mainly about collecting and exchanging existing information [on SRF]”, says Lewis.
This information was sourced not just from Europe, but also from other parts of the world, notably India, China and Kenya, where SRF is widely practiced. By contrast, in Europe agriculture and agroforestry have become highly mechanised, with traditional methods being regarded as economically unviable.
The BENWOOD project team proved there is much that can be learnt from developing nations. In India, which ranks 2nd in the world in terms of tree plantations, “they take so much more out of the land. [The farmers] do not only think about kilowatts per hour, but they also consider the space between the trees and use it to grow food crops,” says Lewis.
There are, of course, some climatic factors involved. India’s warmer climate enables more vegetation to grow. The BENWOOD team identified six different biomes – communities of plants, animals and soil organisms – in Brazil, whereas a European country such as Austria has only four. A particular focus of the project was the food versus fuel debate: the competition for land use between food production and biomass production for energy.
In Europe, BENWOOD project results are expected to benefit both small- and large-scale SRF farmers. This is because the use of biomass for renewable energy production is likely to increase in the future in order to meet targets for fossil fuel reduction. The collection and dissemination of SRF knowledge means that crop yields for the production of biofuels can be maximised by planting material that is adapted to local conditions such as climate and type of soil.
One of the most successful results of the BENWOOD project was the set up of an international platform for the exchange of information relating to SRF. The BENWOOD team organised seven public workshops that were attended by specialists in the field of SRF, large-scale SRF producers from Brazil, university partners and local farmers from the project participating countries. These workshops enabled participants from various backgrounds to present and share their experiences.
“In order to get more land covered with SRF, it simply has to be more attractive to farmers,” stresses Lewis. BENWOOD project therefore provided farmers with the best practice guidelines in order to ensure that SRF becomes more profitable and more attractive, which could ultimately lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in both developed and developing nations.