UN Agenda 21 & Miscanthus Giganteus
How Miscanthus giganteus, and its many uses and products in Europe, relate to Agenda 21. Since Agenda 21 is a massive document, only sections of it relevant to our theme have been considered here.
The cultivation of Miscanthus giganteus fits with many of the prominent recommendations made by Agenda 21. These address some of the main concerns covered in Agenda 21 regarding agriculture, energy production and its use, and business ethics (1).
Miscanthus giganteus is being promoted as an important non-food crop suitable for Europe. One of the factors making it attractive are its high yields, an average 15 tonnes per hectare/year.
As Miscanthus is a perennial crop, a single ploughing operation to plant it, can provide yields up to 20-25 years. So the greenhouse gas emissions, due to use of fossil fuels to operate farm machinery is minimal (2, 3).
Fertiliser production is another heavy emitter of both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Since, Miscanthus requires little or no additional fertilisation, and no pest control, further greenhouse gas emission cuts are achieved. Moreover, the pollution of ground and underground water sources that occurs from agricultural run-off and seepage loaded with chemical fertilisers and pesticides is prevented, as is eutrophication of open water sources (2,3,4).
Growing Miscanthus would not contribute to bio-accumulation of chemicals, which have been known to enter the food-chain, poisoning and decimating populations of bees and some species of birds. The contaminants finally reach humans through the consumption of tainted food (2,3,4).
Since it is a sterile hybrid, that is propagated by rhizomes, there is also no danger of it self-seeding and turning invasive. Thus as a crop, Miscanthus is in general, environmentally friendly, and doesn't negatively effect human health, the atmosphere or biodiversity and therefore fits with the Agenda 21 vision of sustainable agriculture (1).
‘A farmer-centred approach' has been considered as key to attaining sustainability and is a theme emphasised in many programmes in Agenda 21. It recommends diversifying agriculture for maximum utilisation of local resources. In addition it also encourages agricultural means of producing goods and services, as an alternative to common harmful practices prevalent so far.
Since Miscanthus can be grown on marginal land unsuitable for food production, it meets both these important criteria for sustainable farming too. Miscanthus can be used to provide a wide range of products, like biomass, animal bedding, composites, aerogel, and nanocellulose; it also be used in phytoremediation, as game cover and to enhance biodiversity (5).
Phytoremediation of contaminated land
One of the most direct application of cultivating Miscanthus is in phytoremediation of contaminated land. If avoiding pollution of air, water and land is considered important in Agenda 21, then so is treating and management of natural resources that have been contaminated due to mining or disposal of industrial or urban sewage wastes (1).
The Agenda 21 recommends,
– National Governments conduct inventories of factories producing hazardous wastes and also of contaminated sites that constitute risk to humans and environment through exposure, and which therefore require rehabilitation.
– Reuse waste-water safely in agriculture.
– Rehabilitation of contaminated sites through ‘environmentally sound management'.
– Involving small and medium sized industries in rehabilitation of contaminated sites (1).
Various national actions have since then, identified 2.5 million potentially contaminated sites across Europe. Miscanthus giganteus is being promoted as one of the crops best suited for phytoremediation. It can be grown in sites of varying sizes, is decentralised and suitable as a small to medium sized industry venture.
Conventional means of land rehabilitation are energy and resource intensive, as well as being expensive. In contrast, phytoremediation by Miscanthus is ecological, and useful for sites that suffer from mild to medium contamination. Miscanthus is suited for phytoremediation, as it is not affected by high concentrations of heavy metals contaminants. Various studies have shown that there is little transfer of many heavy metals from the soil into the aerial tissues of Miscanthus, making it useful for use as feedstock in energy production. Moreover, the gradual removal of metals improves the quality of the soil. Though its productivity is reduced, it can still produce higher yields than other energy crops used for phytoremediation (7).
If the contamination of the crop is high, and it cannot be used for energy production, it is still useful in stopping the spread of pollutants in air and water, and provides habitats for wildlife. Within three years it can also significantly increase populations of beneficial soil bacteria, fungi and insects having an overall beneficial effect on biodiversity (7).
Energy production and use
Energy is important for economic development and a good quality of life. Most of the energy produced is used in human settlements production, and by people for heating or cooling their buildings. Moreover transportation accounts for 30% of commercial energy consumption. The need for energy will only grow in future. However, the production of most energy, the patterns of their transmission, distribution and consumption are polluting and unsustainable on the longer run.
Agenda 21 wanted a transition to diversified energy sources that integrated alternative new and renewable sources of energy by 2000, and to ‘reduce negative impacts of energy production and use on human health and on the environment' (1).
To this end, Agenda 21 urges the promotion of
– the introduction of environmentally sound technologies within the energy sectors
– sustainable, resource-efficient and non polluting technology and material use in the transport systems
– economic instruments and market mechanisms by national Governments in cooperation with business and industry that integrate environment with energy production and increase energy efficiency
– ‘review of current energy supply mixes to determine how the contribution of environmentally sound energy systems as a whole, particularly new and renewable energy systems, could be increased in an economically efficient manner, taking into account respective countries' unique social, physical, economic and political characteristics,' by national governments.
– coordination of plans regionally and subregionally, for efficient distribution of environmentally sound energy from new and renewable energy sources
– motivation of farmers through policies that provide incentives to manage their natural resources efficiently and sustainably, by national Governments (1).
In recent years, the European Union has initiated many policies to encourage bio-energy crops. In the beginning the emphasis was on corn, and sugar crops for the production of liquid fuels to produce bio-ethanol and bio-diesel for transportation. Since this competes for use of these crops for food, and these annual crops' production is also environmentally harmful, lignocellulosic crops like Miscanthus are now being promoted (4).
Miscanthus giganteus is a key bio-energy crop whose carbon balance can be positive if cultivated organically. The energy that is produced by this crop is fixed within a year by its C4 physiology, and there is some additional carbon that gets stored in its underground parts (2). Large areas of surplus land are expected to be available in different parts of Europe, due to increase in yield of food crops and decreasing populations. This can facilitate an increase in cultivation of Miscanthus and other energy crops, to ensure that renewable energy contribution reaches up to 15% of the total energy needed by 2020, as planned by the EU.
Miscanthus is useful for small and medium scale production of biogas or biomass in the form of pellets, bales or chips (5). It is a rural based industry with decentralised production, making the distribution of energy also economical and ecological.
The international meeting at Rio recognised the importance of industry, as producer of goods and services, as a major employer and as being vital for a nation's economy. However, it is also a major user of resources as well as being a major polluter of land, water and air (1).
Inefficient Industrial production
Industrial production, is driven by technology, that doesn't use resources efficiently, leading to production of by-products that cannot be used, as well as waste that are polluting. The product at the end of its use, is another major source of waste, as they are not recyclable. This process of production and use follows a linear cradle to grave approach, leading to adverse effects on human health and the environment.
The construction sector that provides housing and infrastructure is no different. It is also of particular concern as the building materials that surround humans their whole lives, is loaded with chemicals that are harmful for human health (1).
The change needed
The 178 countries that met in Rio, outlined in Agenda 21 the steps necessary to make industry sustainable.
1. Promoting cleaner production
All stakeholders, government, industries, international organisations and consumers need to work together to change the production processes.
– Conventional production methods, need to be replaced with technologies and practices, that minimise waste in all stages of the product life-cycle. Cleaner production should strive to increase efficiencies in each stage of production and product cycle.
– Improve pollution abatement technologies, replace polluting materials, and reduce wastes and by-products.
– Develop new environmentally sound technologies.
– ‘Encourage environmentally sound and sustainable use of renewable natural resources'.
– In case of the construction industry, indigenous production of building materials that use locally available resources should be encouraged, to reduce their carbon and create more local jobs.
2. Business and industry, can play a major role in reducing pollution and wastes
-Industries and businesses should voluntarily incorporate cleaner production methods taking into account its influence on suppliers and consumers.
– Businesses, along with national Governments, should ensure inclusion of environmental costs into accounting and pricing mechanisms, so that damage to environment is taken into consideration as against the usual practice of considering environment a ‘free resource'.
– Encourage stewardship of national resources by entrepreneurs.
– Increase the number of entrepreneurs who undertake sustainable production.
– Enhance the capacity of the construction sector to provide employment, both in urban and rural areas.
– Businesses can cooperate in the development and transfer of technologies, and information, to develop capacity at all levels from corporates to individuals.
3. National Governments help by adopting policies and initiating programmes to promote cleaner production technologies and achieve minimization of waste generation.
– Provide ‘regulatory and non-regulatory incentives to encourage industry to change product design', to promote cleaner production technologies and good housekeeping practices.
– Encourage industries and consumers to use reusable packaging (1).
Sustainability at AgriKinetics
Adenda 21 envisages a prominent role for industries, businesses and entrepreneurs in achieving sustainability in industrial production, particularly in providing environmentally friendly human settlements (1).
In agreement with these principle, AgriKinetics, is voluntarily engaged in promoting organic cultivation of Miscanthus, and development of sustainable products. It collaborates with like-minded entrepreneurs and farmers, by offering consultancy, and services not just in UK, but also different parts of Europe, thereby helping in the spread of innovative and sustainable technology. Its website is an attempt to share its experiences and motivate more growth of Miscanthus.
Furthermore, moving away from the cradle to grave way of business, AgriKinetics has adopted the cradle-to-cradle method of product design and manufacture. The main focus of this approach is to reduce waste by designing products whose components can be separated at the end of the product life-cycle and reused. This saves valuable natural resources in product manufacture and prevents production of waste. This is also energy efficient and brings about considerable reduction in pollution, as the materials and methods chosen for use are all environmentally friendly (8).
Miscanthus can be grown locally in UK and many parts of Europe, as per Agenda 21 recommendations for production of building materials. Since Miscanthus cultivation has a bright future in Europe, it is bound to create many jobs, especially in rural areas. Similarly, so will the production of ecological biocomposites, and nanocellulose that can be used in the construction industry. Unlike the conventional construction components, these products have the additional benefit of being biodegradable at the end of their product life (8).
Bio-composites can be used in the construction industry to cut its carbon footprint by 50%. Energy consumption occurs not only during the use of buildings but also during its production. A recent EU study (BIOBUILD) comprising 13 partners, that was concluded in mid 2015, states that 35% of a buildings' carbon footprint is accounted for by production methods. The project seeks to make bio-composites that can be used even on the outer facade of a building (9).
Lignocellulosic materials, including Miscanthus have been used in the production of composition boards, like particle-board (extruded and plate-pressed), and medium density fibre boards. They replace wood which is usually used as raw material, thereby sparing high carbon stocks like forests. These composites when combined with resin can be as strong as steel, and yet have a lower density. The composition boards can be used in construction, interior panelling and furnitures, since they are low cost, and durable (10).
Miscanthus' good fibre qualities (tensile strength, hardness, and modulus) make it suitable for use in biocomposites. The main challenge in production of biocomposites is, ‘improving impact strength with the desired tensile and flexural properties' (11).
There are many bioplastics in use currently, that are biodegardable, and produced as natural alternatives to petroleum based products, with applications in construction as well. A recent study has found that addition of Miscanthus fibres can improve the stiffness and flexural strength of one such biodegradable polyester (a polymer-matrix-composite), due to the length of its fibres (11).
AgriKinetics is also involved in pioneering efforts to use Miscanthus in the production of bioplastics as the more sustainable renewable alternative to petroleum, wood or mineral based products (12).
On the one hand, novel biocomposites are being produced by innovative technologies, while research in Miscanthus that is only 25 years old is also gaining momentum. It is a matter of time that Miscanthus finds increasing use in biocomposites.
The national Governments can work with academia and industry as suggested by Agenda 21 to improve sustainability in the agricultural and industrial sectors employing Miscanthus giganteus.