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Sustainable intensification of high-diversity biomass production for optimal biofuel benefits

Nature Sustainabilityvolume 1pages686692 (2018) | Download Citation


The potential benefits of biofuels depend on the environmental impacts of biomass production. High-diversity mixtures of grassland species grown on abandoned agricultural lands have been proposed as enhancing climate mitigation potential, but can have low yields. Intensification might increase productivity, but might also cause negative environmental impacts. Here, we show that, compared with more intensive treatments, moderate intensification of high-diversity grasslands had as great or greater biomass yields, soil carbon stores and root mass, and had negligible effects on grassland stability, diversity and nitrate leaching. In particular, compared with untreated plots, the moderate treatment of irrigation and addition of 70 kgN ha−1 yr−1 resulted in 89% more yield, 61% more root carbon, 187% more soil carbon storage and, if biomass were used for bioenergy, twice the greenhouse gas reductions. Irrigation and 140 kgN ha−1 yr−1 had 32% lower greenhouse gas benefits, 10 times greater nitrate leaching and 121% greater loss of plant diversity than the moderate treatment. These results suggest that optimizing multiple environmental benefits requires sustainable intensification practices appropriate for the soils, climate and plant species of a region.

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Data availability

The data used in this study—experiment e248 of the Cedar Creek Long-Term Ecological Research programme—are available at For data collected before the start of the irrigation and nitrogen fertilization treatments in the 32-species treatment plots, see pre-2002 data for the experiment e120.

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We thank the Global Climate and Energy Project and NSF Long-Term Ecological Research programme (DEB-0620652 and DEB-1234162) for funding this research, T. Mielke for coordinating data collection, and D. Bahauddin for data management.

Author information


  1. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN, USA

    • Yi Yang
    • , David Tilman
    • , Clarence Lehman
    •  & Jared J. Trost
  2. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

    • David Tilman


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Y.Y. led the data analysis and writing efforts. D.T. established the experiment, contributed to data analysis and writing, and obtained NSF funding. C.L. obtained Global Climate and Energy Project funding and contributed to the writing. J.J.T. planned and performed nitrate leaching analyses and contributed to the writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Tilman.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Tables 1–14, Supplementary References 1–14

  2. Supplementary Dataset

    Data for the 4 figures presented in the main text, Detailed data for the life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis, Estimates of state-level irrigation GHG emissions

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