Add invasive species status to list of biofuel concerns
mongabay.com
September 22, 2006 [Updated Sept. 23, 2006]


High energy prices over the past couple years have fueled interest in biofuels, which proponents say are less damaging to the environment and provide energy security not afforded by foreign oil and gas imports. Nevertheless, accompanying their rise in visibility, have been concerns over their environmental impact of converting natural vegetation for their production. Now scientists warn that some biofuel crops pose a risk as invasive species.



W Susan Post, Illinois Natural History Survey, in front of a research plot of Miscanthus, a potential biofuel crop.
In the September 22 issue of Science a team of researchers argue that some biofuel crops could become damaging invasive species.

"Most of the traits that are touted as great for biofuel crops — no known pests or diseases, rapid growth, high water-use efficiency — are red flags for invasion biologists," said Robert N. Wiedenmann, a professor of entomology at the University of Arkansas. "We want to start a dialog and approach the question of biofuels systematically."

Wiedenmann and his colleagues cite Sorghum halepense, or Johnson grass, as an example of a "seemingly benign" crop that became invasive species after its introduction in the United States. Johnson grass now causes up to $30 million a year in losses to the cotton and soybean industries in three states alone.

Wiedenmann says one proposed biofuel crop, Miscanthus, is of special concern because of its high rate of growth. Wiedenmann describes the plant, which can grow up to eight feet in six weeks, as "Johnson grass on steroids."

"Plants like these, particularly grasses, have great potential from an energy standpoint, but the benefits need to be balanced with the costs," Wiedenmann said.

Nevertheless, other scientists say Miscanthus holds promise as a biofuel source.

"Miscanthus is actually a promising candidate in many ways - very high biomass yields, low fertilizer demand because the nutrients are drawn back into the root system before cutting... The true limitations are a narrow genetic base (essentially one clone) and the need for vegetative propagation (making establishment very expensive - at least until someone works on that aspect)."

"Although it is definitely important to consider the invasive potential of any introduced plant species, the widely quoted statement that the cellulosic biofuel candidate, Miscanthus, is 'like Johnson grass on steriods' is particularly misleading," said Steve Savage, a researcher based in Encinitas, California. "The plant of interest is a naturally occurring hybrid that is a triploid and thus sterile. Unlike Johnson grass which produces seeds prolifically, Miscanthus produces no viable seed. Years of experimentation in Europe have not indicated invasive potential nor have recent trials in the US (University of Illinois, Auburn University)."

Unmanaged expansion of alien biofuel crops could add to already high economic cost of invasive species. A 1999 study by Cornell University put the economic toll of such species -- in terms of the damage they do and the expense of controlling them -- at $137 billion a year in the United States alone.

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This article uses quotes and information from a University of Arkansas and previous mongabay.com articles.




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mongabay.com (September 22, 2006).

Add invasive species status to list of biofuel concerns.

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