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.