2,500 plants could be used for fuel or bioenergy but only six crops generate 80% of biofuel, new report reveals


There are 2,500 identified plants that could be used for fuel or bioenergy but only six crops generate 80% of global industrial biofuel, a new report by Royal Botanic Gardens’ Kew science centre reveals.

The data in the new State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report is a result of international collaboration of 210 scientists from 42 countries, with the new data showing how we are currently using plants and fungi, what useful properties we are missing, and what we risk losing.

Professor Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at RBG Kew, commented: “The data emerging from this year’s report paint a picture of a world that has turned its back on the potential of plants and fungi to address fundamental global issues such as food security and climate change.

“Societies have been too dependent on too few species for too long.

“At a time of rapid biodiversity loss, we are failing to access the treasure chest of incredible diversity on offer and missing a huge opportunity for our generation.

“As we start the most critical decade our planet has ever faced, we hope this report will give the public, businesses and policymakers the facts they need to demand nature-based solutions that can address the triple threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security.”

Alex Antonelli. (Credit: Magnus Bergström.)

For the purpose of producing energy, according to the report there are 2,500 identified plants that could be used for fuel or bioenergy, but only six crops – maize, sugarcane, soybean, palm oil, rapeseed and wheat – generate 80% of global industrial biofuel.

With 840 million people (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Oceania) having no access to electricity and three billion without access to non-polluting cooking fuels and technology, new bioenergy crops are urgently needed.

Until now, research has focused on a few crop species grown for industrial energy supply chains.

In an attempt to address this knowledge gap, Kew and its collaborators carried out an in-depth evaluation of the plants and fungi that could be used as a source of energy, assessing the species with the potential to be scaled-up with innovative technologies.

Dr Olwen Grace, botanist at RBG Kew and lead author of the energy chapter, commented: “I think that energy poverty can be addressed sustainably within a decade if there is political will, given that we have a diverse pool of plants and fungi to explore and a vast array of suitable emerging technologies.

“There is real potential to harness the advances in engineering to support diverse, sustainable and resilient landscapes supporting the most essential human needs – food, water and energy.”

Olwen Grace. (Credit: RBG Kew.)

As renewable sources of bioenergy, plants and fungi have a huge contribution to make to reducing both carbon emissions and energy poverty.

Fungi, in particular, have much unexplored potential within the bioenergy sector and are abundant and renewable as a resource.

However, rather than helping to reduce greenhouse gases and alleviate energy poverty, some of the methods currently used to produce bioenergy are harming the environment and people.

For example, in 2019, a ban on sugarcane cultivation in the Amazon was lifted, which could amplify rates of deforestation, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatening species.

The team found various bioenergy initiatives that could be implemented at a local level as a solution to energy poverty.

One such example is a microenterprise, EcoFuels Kenya, who source more than 3k tonnes of wild-collected nuts each year.

They process the nuts to extract oil to replace diesel in generator engines, while the husks are converted to livestock feed and fertiliser.

The authors suggest a combined effort is required to successfully scale up this kind of innovation to provide clean energy for all: researchers and funding bodies need to increase efforts to find local biofuel species in low-income countries, governments need to encourage diversity of agriculture alongside biodiversity conservation, and industry needs to invest in technologies developed for local species.