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May 27, 2008

Second-generation biofuel crops have their own risks

by Elisabeth Rosenthal

In the past year, the world has witnessed the unintended effects of diverting food crops like corn and palm to make biofuel: In part because of competition from the hot biofuels market, food prices are skyrocketing and food stocks vanishing. Rain forest is being cut down to grow more "green" fuel.

As such problems have emerged, it has become almost a mantra among investors and politicians that newer "second-generation" biofuels - made from nonfood crops like reeds and wild grasses - would provide green energy, without taking food off the table.

Second-generation biofuel plantations growing jatropha, a genus of succulents, or water-retaining plants that can grow in arid climes, have sprung up all over Africa. In the United States and Europe, plans abound to grow crops like switch grass and giant reed, or wild cane, for energy and fuels.

Now, biologists and botanists are warning that these second- generation biofuels may have serious unintended consequences as well: Most of these newer crops are what scientists label invasive species - weeds - which they say have a high potential to escape plantations, overrun adjacent farms and natural land, and create economic and ecological havoc.

At a United Nations meeting in Bonn on Tuesday, scientists from the Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature as well as other groups, issued a warning worthy of Cassandra.

"Some of the most commonly recommended species for biofuels production are also major invasive alien species," their paper says, adding that these crops should be studied more before being cultivated for biofuel production in new areas.

Controlling the spread of such plants could prove difficult, the experts said, producing "greater financial losses than gains." As the International Union encapsulated the message: "Don't let invasive biofuel crops attack your country."

To reach their conclusions, the scientists matched the list of the most popular second-generation biofuels with a list of invasive species and found an alarming degree of overlapping. They said little evaluation of risk had occurred before planting.

"With biofuels, there's always a hurry," said Geoffrey Howard, an expert on invasive species with the International Union. "Plantations are started by investors - often from the U.S. or Europe - so they are eager to generate biofuels within a couple of years and also, as you might guess, they don't want a negative assessment."

The biofuels industry says the risk that biofuel crops will become weed problems is overstated, noting that proposed crops, while they have some "weedy" potential, are not inevitably invasive.

"There are very few plants that are 'weeds' - full stop," said Willy De Greef, incoming secretary general of EuropaBio, an industry group. "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 EU and the United States have both instituted biofuel targets as a method of reducing carbon emissions; the EU target of 10 percent biofuel use in transport by 2020 is binding. As a result, politicians are eagerly awaiting the commercial perfection of second- generation biofuels.

The EU is funding a project to introduce the "giant reed, a high- yielding, nonfood plant, into EU agriculture." The reed is an "environmentally friendly" and cost-effective crop, poised to become the "champion of biomass crops," the project 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 the facility is built.

But the project has been opposed by the Florida Native Plant Society and a number of scientists, who say giant reed growth could endanger the nearby Everglades. The giant reed - previously used mostly as a decorative plant and to make musical instruments - is a fast-growing thirsty species that has drained wetlands and clogged drainage systems in other places where it has been planted. Highly flammable, it 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.

"These are tough survivors, which means they're good producers for biofuel because they grow well on marginal land that you wouldn't use for food," Howard, with the International Union, said. "But we've had 100 years of experience with introductions of these crops that turned out to be disastrous for environment, people, health."

Stas Burgiel, a scientist at the Nature Conservancy, said the cost of controlling invasive species was "immense," and generally not paid by those who created the problem.

But he and other experts emphasized that some of the second- generation biofuel crops could still be safe, if introduced into the right places and under the right conditions.

The Global Invasive Species Program estimates that the damage from invasive species already costs the world more than $1.4 trillion annually - 5 percent of the global economy.

History is filled with well-meaning introductions gone bad, as plants taken from one part of the world to another thrive uncontrollably in a new country that lacks their natural predators.

Decades ago, mesquite was introduced into Australia and Africa for charcoal production, as well as to provide shade and reduce erosion. Decades later, "it has turned into a monster," Howard said, invading millions of acres of pastureland in places like Australia and Ethiopia, and rendering them unusable.

"It's all covered by awful, spiny bushes so that people and their animals can't find anything to eat," said Howard, an Australian. "We want to make sure that doesn't happen again through biofuels."


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