Add invasive species status to list of biofuel concerns
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.

Related articles

High oil prices fuel bioenergy push High oil prices and growing concerns over climate change are driving investment and innovation in the biofuels sector as countries and industry increasingly look towards renewable bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has recently invested $84 million in an American ethanol company, while global energy gluttons ranging from the United States to China are setting long-term targets for the switch to such fuels potentially offering a secure domestic source of renewable energy and fewer environmental headaches.

Why is oil palm replacing tropical rainforests Recently much has been made about the conversion of Asia's biodiverse rainforests for oil-palm cultivation. Environmental organizations have warned that by eating foods that use palm oil as an ingredient, Western consumers are directly fueling the destruction of orangutan habitat and sensitive ecosystems.

US House deals blow to bioenergy market In a set back to the growing biofuels market and American energy consumers, House Majority Leader John Boehner said Monday he will not push legislation to reduce the U.S. tariff on ethanol imports. Thus, the United States will keep its 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol despite a warning from the Department of Energy that domestic ethanol supplies will fall short this summer and will need to reply on foreign fuel.

Cellulosic ethanol fuels environmental concerns In recent months, high fuel prices and national security concerns have sparked interest in biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol, which can be derived from virtually any plant matter including farm waste, looks particularly promising. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that cellulosic conversion technology could reduce the cost of producing ethanol by as much as 60 cents per gallon by 2015. Green groups see cellulosic ethanol as a carbon neutral energy source that could be used to fight the build up of atmospheric carbon dioxide responsible for global warming.

Ethanol more energy-efficient than oil, finds study Using ethanol -- alcohol produced from corn or other plants -- instead of gasoline is more energy-efficient than oil say researchers at the University of California, Berkeley

Invasive species may increase with global warming New research published in Molecular Ecology suggests that climate change could trigger the expansion of invasive species into wider ranges. The study looked at the genetic history of a goby species in the Eastern Atlantic which appears to have expanded its range dramatically when the world warmed about 150,000 years ago.

Biofuels can lead to deforestation says Unilever executive While biofuels are hyped for their potential to off-set fossil fuel use, the shift toward their use should proceed with caution warns Alan Jope, vice president of consumer products giant Unilever. In an August 7 interview with The Times, Jope said that the environmental drawbacks of biofuels is overlooked.

Biofuels can replace about 30 percent of fuel needs With world oil demand growing, supplies dwindling and the potential for weather- and conflict-related supply interruptions, other types of fuels and technologies are needed to help pick up the slack. A group of experts in science, engineering and public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Imperial College London and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory recommend a comprehensive research and policy plan aimed at increasing the practicality of using biofuels and biomaterials as a supplement to petroleum. The review article, called "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," appears in the Jan. 27 issue of Science.

GM tree could be used for cellulosic ethanol A tree that can reach 90 feet in six years and be grown as a row crop on fallow farmland could represent a major replacement for fossil fuels. Purdue University researchers are using genetic tools in an effort to design trees that readily and inexpensively can yield the substances needed to produce alternative transportation fuel.

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

Recommend this article? Comments?
>Digg this article | >Hugg this article | Contact

News options

CITATION: (September 22, 2006).

Add invasive species status to list of biofuel concerns.