“Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country.”

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At a United Nations meeting in Bonn, Germany, on Tuesday, scientists from the Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as well as other groups, presented a paper with a warning about invasive species.

“Some of the most commonly recommended species for biofuels production are also major invasive alien species,” the paper says, adding that these crops should be studied more thoroughly before being cultivated in new areas. The IUCN came up with the phrase “Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country.” to highlight the potential problem.

Most of these newer biofuel crops are what scientists label invasive species (ie. weeds) that have an extraordinarily high potential to escape biofuel plantations, overrun adjacent farms and natural land, and create economic and ecological havoc in the process, they say.

Willy De Greef, incoming secretary general of EuropaBio, an industry group, counters that “You have to look at the biology of the plant and the environment where you’re introducing it and ask, are there worry points here?” He said that biofuel farmers would inevitably introduce new crops carefully because they would not want growth they could not control.

The giant reed

The European Union is funding a project to introduce the “giant reed, a high-yielding, non-food plant into Europe Union agriculture,” according to its proposal. The reed is environmentally friendly and a cost-effective crop, poised to become the “champion of biomass crops,” the proposal says.

A proposed Florida biofuel plantation and plant, also using giant reed, has been greeted with enthusiasm by investors, its energy sold even before it is built.

But the project has been opposed by the Florida Native Plants Society and a number of scientists because of its proximity to the Everglades, where giant reed overgrowth could be dangerous, they said. The giant reed, previously used mostly in decorations and in making musical instruments — is a fast-growing, thirsty species that has drained wetlands and clogged drainage systems in other places where it has been planted. It is also highly flammable and increases the risk of fires.

From a business perspective, the good thing about second-generation biofuel crops is that they are easy to grow and need little attention. But that is also what creates their invasive potential.

The Global Invasive Species Database has nominated the giant reed (or, Arundo donax ) among 100 of the “World’s Worst” invaders. Considered native to the Indian sub-continent, it now occurs worldwide in tropical to warm-temperate regions, inluding tropical islands.

Jatropha, the darling of the second-generation biofuels community, is now being cultivated widely in East Africa in brand new biofuel plantations. But jatropha has been recently banned by two Australian states as an invasive species. If jatropha, which is poisonous, overgrows farmland or pastures, it could be disastrous for the local food supply in Africa, experts said.

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10 Responses to “Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country.”

  1. Pete Smith says:

    The factoid about jatropha being poisonous needs expansion. The nut is commonly documented as poisonous to humans, but toxicity varies between varieties, and roasting destroys the toxins. The medicinal properties of the plant are evidenced by the range of common names for the plant, many of which have medical connotations. The leaves are used to treat a number of conditions, the oil has purgative properties and is used as an pain reliever from rheumatism, and the latex is an anti-coagulant.
    http://www.tropilab.com/jatropha-cur.html
    Quite right to warn against the introduction of alien species. The main danger of jatropha seems to be that when grown as a monoculture it can form dense stands that crowd out native vegetation. Its ‘menace’ lies in the way it’s grown, rather than its properties as a plant.

  2. matt says:

    Yes, I found it very interesting doing this post. The main reason I blog is to learn as I do and this post is no exception. While it’s not unusual to see another problem pop up whilst trying to provide a solution elsewhere, the need to resolve the impending energy crisis gets more acute by the month. And oil has just hit $135 a barrel !!

    Those that caution against rushing in to introduce new species into new areas are right to do so. It may well be that there are better ways of managing these new crops. It’s just that it’s hard to believe any parrticular authority will be there to provide, let alone enforce these guidelines, especially in places like Ghana where Brazil is planning to move in big time with jatropha and sugar cane.

  3. Pete Smith says:

    I could only find one reference to jatropha being ‘banned’ in Australia, that was in WA. They seemed more concerned about the health risks to people and animals than about it doing what invasive things do. The irony is they don’t seem to have taken any account of experiences in India, where jatropha has been widely cultivated for some time. The Indians are quite happy to grow jatropha as a stock hedge, because cattle and goats won’t eat it.
    If as much time and trouble was spent in assessing the ecological impact of these alien species as is spent on testing GM crops, I’d feel happier. I’d also like to see the people who make the decisions on whether to allow or ban crops like jatropha actually show some understanding of the science.

  4. Steve Stout says:

    Another thing to consider about jatropha is that it was widely distributed throughout the tropics by the Portuguese and others more than 300 years ago. I’m growing jatropha in West Africa and South America using seeds from existing living fences. Although these fences are centuries old, I’ve seen little expansion from the nice neat rows as they were originally planted. We also cherish every seed and can’t imagine our farms expanding on their own (I kind of wish they did). Jatropha grows relatively slowly, so I don’t see any problem keeping it hemmed in, but we’ll keep our eyes on it. We also try to educate our neighbors on jatropha’s toxicity, keeping it away from schools and other areas close to kids. Again, it’s been around for a long time (although in relatively small numbers) and is well known for its medicinal value.

    I could definitely see the Everglades and other tropical areas being overrun by reeds. Even switchgrass should probably have a strong perimeter to keep it from spreading.

    I am a little bewildered by talk of mono-cultures, however, because I grew up in Iowa in the middle of the “Great Corn Desert.” There’s not a lot of variation in Americas bread basket, so I’m not sure how we can tell emerging countries to not do the same. My company doesn’t cut down trees or plant in large contiguous plots, but our business centers around one plant, jatropha. I’m not sure how to run a large agricultural business without mono-cultures.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  5. matt says:

    Steve,

    Good to hear from someone at the coal face, so to speak. Sounds like you have thought the issues through, that the so called experts have raised in the post above. I guess some species are more difficult to control than others, as you yourself point out.

    Very good point regards Africa & monocultures. They should look to develop their agricultural systems and of course this will steer towards the farming of monocultures.

    You may have heard of The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is chaired by Kofi Annan. This organisation believes in, among other things;

    *Conserving African crop biodiversity, and using that diversity to develop resilient new crop varieties that are high-yielding, stress tolerant and naturally resistant to pests and diseases;

    *Providing Africa’s small-scale farmers with access to a balance of organic and mineral fertilisers to restore soil health and increase farm yield;

    *Farm management techniques that integrate livestock and crops to the benefit of the environment

    More on AGRA here.

    Thank you for stopping by and giving us your first hand experience. 🙂

  6. Pete Smith says:

    “the so called experts”
    Is that aimed at me Matt? Gosh, I’ve never been called an ‘expert’ before. Although the word ‘so-called’ does crop up quite regularly … 😎

  7. Pete Smith says:

    I wonder if that’s the same Steve Stout who’s Chief of Operations at Jatroco.
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/simplicator

  8. matt says:

    I refer to the ‘experts’ mentioned in my post Pete.

    Looks like you found the right man. 🙂

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