Sustainable Bioenergy Crop Production

Bioenergy Crop Production and Sustainability:

Sustainability is a complex idea with definitions that can vary slightly depending upon the situation. What does it mean to grow and sell bioenergy crops in a sustainable way? What factors should be considered and prioritized? How do you determine the impacts of actions at local to global scales? These are the questions that we will have to grapple with as a society and for which there is no single answer. We hope that through playing Fuel of Fuel, players will begin to explore and discover some potential answers to these questions. Here we provide some background on some of the sustainability issues surrounding bioenergy crop production.

Defining Sustainable Bioenergy Crop Production:

Based on our general definition of sustainability, to be sustainable, a bioenergy crop production (farming) should:

  1. Maintain natural resources present and future: Numerous natural resources are required to support agriculture. These include, soil fertility, water, energy (fuel), and various chemical inputs. Many other natural resources are directly impacted by agriculture, such as groundwater quality affected by soil and chemical pollution, and wildlife habitats on or near the farm.
  2. Balance profits, energy production, and environmental protection: Farmers and rural communities need healthy profits and economies to live comfortable and happy lives. In addition, producing lots of crop biomass (high yields) is needed for renewable energy production, either from biofuels or power plants. Lastly, profits and energy production should not come at great expense to the environment, in the form of degraded soil, water, air or wildlife habitat.
  3. Consider local and global impacts: What happens on your farm can have regional or global impacts. For example, local and global markets affect crop prices. In addition, local water pollution can affect drinking water quality across an entire region, and the beneficial insects that eat pests on your fields can also help control pests on your neighbor's farm.

In Fields of Fuel, players have the opportunity to explore how different planting and management practices affect a range of environmental and economic variables over time. Realistic economic and ecological models generate data, graphs and associated scores to evaluate the sustainability of individual farms and the collective game “world.” The game’s models allow for realistic interactions between farms, such that an individual farmer’s profits, environmental quality and energy production are affected by neighbors’ farming practices. The hope is that the lessons learned from gameplay have real-world applications.

Dimensions of Bioenergy Crop Sustainability in Fields of Fuel:

Although there are numerous social, economic, and environmental factors that affect bioenergy crop production sustainability, we limited sustainability in Fields of Fuel to three main components: energy production, income, and environmental quality. Each component represents one of the three sustainability categories (economic, environmental, social). Players receive scores in each sustainability category based upon data generated by the game’s models. An overall sustainability is calculated based upon an average of the three sub scores. The table below summarizes how sustainability is measured in the game.

score Component Sustainability Category  score Subcomponents (Data)
Energy Production Social
  • Crop yield (Megagrams of biomass)
  • NET Energy (Megajoules)
Income Economic
  • Net Income ($)
Environmental Quality Environmental
  • Soil fertility (soil carbon)
  • Water quality (index)
  • Beneficial Bugs (index)
  • Greenhouse gas Emssions (co2 eq.)

Here we provide some background on each dimension of sustainability as defined in the game. For more, information about the models used to generate scores and data in the game, please visit the Scoring and Models section.

Energy Production (Energy Score): Abundant, affordable, and renewable energy is a requirement for productive economics and social well-being. We need energy to fuel our vehicles, heat and light buildings, run factories, and transport goods. We therefore use farm energy production to represent the "social" component of sustainability and players' sustainability scores. In the game, a farm's energy score is based upon their annual net energy production. Net energy production is different than total energy production in that its calculation requires subtracting all of the energy inputs, such as fertilizer application, tractor operation, and biofuel processing, that are required to grow crops and convert them into biofuels. See the Scoring and Models section for more information about how your energy score is calculated.

Income (Economic Score): Farmers need to make a living from growing and selling bioenergy crops. Therefore, player income is used to represent the "economic" component of sustainability and, in turn, calculate their economic score. Player income is calculated each year by subtracting production costs (i.e. fertilizer, seeds, tractor operation) from the earnings gained from selling crops. Read more about how the "economic score" is calculated in the Scoring and Models section.

Environmental Quality (Environment Score): Farming practices should not cause significant damage to local and global environmental conditions. Rather, sustainable farming should preserve or increase key indicators of ecological health. In the game, four environmental indicators are used represent the "environment" component of sustainability and calculate players' "environment score": soil health, water quality, beneficial bug abundance, and greenhouse gas emissions. Read more about these indicators and how the environmental score is calculated in the Scoring and Models section.