Better use of grass-covered areas across the EU could protect nature and boost agriculture

Better use of grass-covered areas across the EU could protect nature and boost agriculture

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German farmers in the Lower Oder Valley National Park on the eastern border with Poland faced a dilemma: what to do with grass that was useless as animal feed.

Like many of their counterparts in Europe, these agricultural producers were careful to avoid wasting a potentially valuable natural resource. They turned to the Leibniz Institute for Agronomy and Bioeconomics in Potsdam for answers.

German sprouts

The institute, known as ATB after its German name, has spent more than a decade researching ways to use grass from the Oder wetlands. Options included turning it into a charcoal-like product that contributes to carbon neutralization and is known as biochar, whose uses range from improving soil quality to building insulation.

“At some point, the idea of ​​using it to produce biochar became very promising,” said Dr. Thomas Heinrich, a researcher at ATB.

Biochar can replace mineral fertilizers or help produce biogas, a type of renewable energy from organic waste including manure and sewage. To make this idea a success, scientists focused on developing the best ways to decompose grass from wetlands and heat-treat it to produce biochar.

The research has become part of a wider initiative to unleash the potential of often overlooked grasslands and create new job opportunities for rural areas in the EU.

The project, called GO-GRASS, began in October 2019 and runs until the end of March 2024.

“There is an opportunity to conserve grasslands, which have high value to society, and at the same time to utilize this biomass,” said Dr. Philipp Grundmann, who leads GO-GRASS and is a researcher at ATB.

The possibilities are many

More than 30% of the European Union’s agricultural area – about 50 million hectares – is covered by permanent grasslands. However, this resource, which is valuable to the ecosystem, is threatened by urbanization, afforestation, climate change and simple neglect.

Permanent grasslands store planet-warming carbon dioxide and absorb rainfall, reducing flood risks and purifying fresh water in the process.

They also play a great role in feeding animals such as cows, sheep, goats and deer, attracting small creatures including birds, butterflies and bees and enhancing cultural value by providing people with beautiful natural scenery.

GO-GRASS brings together 23 partners from eight countries: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and Sweden.

The project is built around four small demonstration sites for herbal product development. In addition to biochar production in the Lower Oder Valley, sites are located in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.

There, scientists from various institutions collaborate with farmers and industry to try to find sustainable ways to use the grass.

Dynamic demos

In the Netherlands, for example, high-quality fibers are extracted from cut grass and used in the production of packaging and paper.

In Denmark, scientists are working to determine what type of grass is best for extracting organic protein, which could serve as feed for pigs and poultry and replace less environmentally friendly imported soybeans.

In Sweden, reed grass is cut and pressed into briquettes, a more sustainable and softer bedding for the animals than traditional sawdust. After that, the briquettes can be used as fertilizer and materials to produce biogas or heat.

Even as these four activities progress, follow-up demonstrations are being planned in Hungary, Romania and Spain.

So far, there is a major potential outcome of the project, which emerged from the impact assessment and from the business models implemented by GO-GRASS: future consumers should be made aware of the environmental benefits of these products.

This is because these goods are likely to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, and without knowing the environmental gains of their purchases, consumers may be less willing to pay the higher price.

Traditional guardians and high-tech managers

Farmers also deserve public financial assistance as custodians of grasslands due to their role in storing carbon dioxide, Grundman said.2.

“Permanent grasslands are a huge store of carbon,” he said. “It will be very important that farmers also get some rewards from the carbon sequestration they provide by tending grasslands.”

Lessons learned from GO-GRASS will inform farmers and policy makers on how to make the most of grasslands. The project plans to provide open source guides and online support.

The carbon storage capacity of grasslands has also attracted interest from a research project called SUPER-G, which is scheduled to end in February 2024 after nearly six years.

The project includes 14 countries in Europe and 22 partner organizations. The program aims to help farmers and policymakers capitalize not only on the carbon storage potential of grasslands, but also on their role in food production, water quality, flood control, biodiversity, and landscape appeal.

“The key thing is a better understanding of how to manage permanent grasslands better,” said Dr Paul Newell Price, scientific coordinator of SUPER-G and associate director at UK-based agricultural and environmental consultancy group ADAS.

Advanced technologies already used by many farmers in Europe could be useful here.

For example, some farms use “virtual fencing” to control livestock movement by sending signals to GPS collars. Others deploy satellite images to discover which grass has higher protein or better digestibility.

‘nice place’

The SUPER-G team said the results so far – based on farm evaluations and pilot farming in six EU regions – show that farmers are able to work on several fronts at once.

“There appears to be a sweet spot for management intensity where farmers can achieve a full range of outcomes,” Newell Price said. “You get good levels of good quality grass production, but you also store a lot of carbon and that’s good for biodiversity.”

The researchers also assessed farmers’ attitudes towards EU initiatives aimed at balancing Europe’s need to produce sufficient food with environmental ambitions under the European Green Deal.

Like GO-GRASS’s Grundman, Newell Price said there was a case for giving farmers financial aid to meet EU environmental targets.

“We found that they are more willing to adopt certain practices if they get paid for the ecosystem services they provide,” he said.

GO-GRASS and SUPER-G show that when it comes to unleashing the potential of grasslands across Europe, researchers aren’t letting the grass grow under their feet.

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