After more than 25 years of research, we know a lot about the so-called miscanthus: a versatile crop that can contribute to solutions to the climate crisis in various areas. Yet we rarely see this ‘elephant grass’ in the Dutch countryside.
Miscanthus is an ancient grass from Southeast Asia and can grow up to 3 meters high. It is a kind of cross between reeds and bamboo. According to Wageningen University, the ‘elephant grass’ absorbs large amounts of CO2, which contributes to a reduction of greenhouses.
“Maybe farmers will switch from potatoes to miscanthus in the future,” says Luisa Trindade from Wageningen University. “Growing elephant grass is less labor intensive than growing potatoes.”
But for the time being, it is not that far yet, explains Trindade. “The only miscanthus currently available on the market has to be propagated by small root pieces (rhizomes). This results in relatively high costs for planting new miscanthus fields, which is perceived by some farmers as a risk.”
Why miscanthus is a promising crop
Miscanthus prevents the soil from becoming bare in winter, providing shelter for the animals. After harvest, miscanthus is a good raw material for e.g. bioplastic, concrete and paper. It is also used in durable noise screens or pressed into briquettes and pellets.
It is not a food crop and can therefore be grown on contaminated land. The plant needs little attention. This means: no fertilizer. And the plant is also not susceptible to diseases, which means that pesticides are actually redundant.
In addition, geese do not like the tall grass crop. A group of farmers – gathered in the Miscanthus group – grows the crop near Schiphol. This prevents geese from flying near airport runways and then colliding with planes.
‘It’s a matter of chicken and egg’
Wageningen University is currently investigating how miscanthus can be bred into a seed-propagating variety. Then each carrot does not have to be planted separately, but a farmer can put seeds in the ground mechanically. “Then I expect an increase in the area with miscanthus in the Netherlands and Europe,” says Trindade.
But there is another problem. At present, it is still far from clear what miscanthus biomass can be used for. It could be, for example, that a farmer produces miscanthus but has nowhere to put it.
‘Farmer must be able to wait’
“For example, as in many start-up companies, we see the ‘chicken and egg’ problem: the industry needs the biomass to be able to develop it into a product, and the farmers need the certainty that their biomass has been bought by the industry. Fortunately, progress is being made here, and farmers and industry know how to find each other.”
And there is even more that makes it difficult for farmers. Arable farmers like to rotate their crops. Potatoes one year, onions or winter wheat the next, and beetroot again. “If a farmer grows potatoes, the farmer has the return on his investment in one year. With miscanthus, they invest today and only after 4 to 5 years they get the investment back. Looking at the long term, miscanthus certainly has many advantages, but the farmer must be able to wait.”
Just a few more steps
When will we see fields full of elephant grass in the Netherlands? Trindade from Wageningen University finds it difficult to assess. According to her, some steps still need to be taken: “I would say that the biggest bottleneck at the moment is the availability of good miscanthus varieties with lower planting costs.”
Much also depends on the farmers, although the current nitrogen crisis offers opportunities: “It may be that some farmers who decide to stop animal production find miscanthus a good way to continue their business.”