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August 22, 2009

Will 'energy crops' become the new invasive species?

by Jessica Leber

U.S. policies are subsidizing new energy crops that are likely to spread off the farm and wreak economic and ecological havoc, a federal advisory board cautioned yesterday.

For years, researchers have worked to develop "advanced" biofuel feeds from unconventional crops such as grasses and algae.

The goal is to enable a switch away from corn- and soy-based biofuel to cellulosic energy crops that don't compete on the food or feed market and have a smaller carbon footprint. A 2007 energy law, in fact, requires a total of 160 billion gallons of the plant-based cellulosic fuels by 2022 that these crops would produce.

As a result, researchers are now selecting, breeding and engineering species that demand less water, fertilizer and agricultural land and grow year-round at high yields.

But it is often exactly these traits, such as drought tolerance or pathogen resistance, that make the fuels of the future ripe to become invasive species and cause widespread damage. The issue highlights another potential complication in what has been a bumpy road in the development of the biofuels industry.

"Absent strategic mitigation efforts, there is substantial risk that some biofuel crops will escape cultivation and cause socio-economic and/or ecological harm," the white paper, adopted by the Invasive Species Advisory Committee, warns.

The group of outside experts advises a federal council tasked with coordinating invasive species policies among 13 departments and agencies. It called on the U.S. government to take major steps to combat the substantial risks from biofuels as it promotes and funds biofuels development.

Invasive species are already costly

Every year, invasive plants cost the United States a minimum of $34 billion in losses and control costs, according to one study the group's paper cites. The potential scale of biofuel cultivation, at more than 150 million acres, provides ample opportunity to add to those costs, the committee says.

Some proposed biofuel crops already are invasive species.

One of the most alarming examples is giant reed, or Arundo donax, according to Joseph DiTomaso, the University of California, Davis, weed specialist who drafted the paper.

The grass grows in dense clumps up to 20 feet tall and is classified a noxious weed in California and in Texas, as well as other areas of the South. But in Florida, researchers are looking to plant even more of it as a biofuel crop, he said.

Proposed energy crops like miscanthus and reed canary grass also are already invasive species in some areas of the world, he said. And jatropha and algae, crops that could one day supplant jet fuels used in aviation, also pose high invasion risk, according to the Global Invasive Species Programme.

Other heavily publicized biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, look to be safer bets in the United States, DiTomaso said.

The laws of unintended consequences are well-known to anyone familiar with the history of invasive species.

A field plowed with good intentions

One of the 10 worst weeds in the world, known as Johnson grass, was originally brought from the Mediterranean to the United States in 1830 as forage material for livestock. Today it's invasive in 23 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and spreads aggressively in the South.

And kudzu -- the colorful "mile a minute" vine that has engulfed the southern United States -- was first imported from Japan to ornament gardens in the late 19th century.

The committee has made nine recommendations to avoid a more modern disaster.

It calls, for example, for long-term flexible funding for an early detection and rapid response system to monitor and respond to potential biofuel crop invasions.

But it also says that agencies need to craft proactive policies that minimize these risks in advance. It recommends evaluating each candidate biofuel crop in the region where it is proposed for cultivation and encouraging the use of low-risk species or cultivars.

Examples might be plants that are sterile or can't survive outside of the cultivated environment. Planting, harvesting, field abandonment, transport and storage practices should also be tailored to combat the threat, they said.

Selecting the right region is important, too. The committee recommended that federally supported research and demonstration projects select sites that minimize escape potential.

The issue goes beyond U.S. borders. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is also drafting guidelines on biofuels and invasive species. In Africa, it says, many governments are rushing to encourage biofuels development. But there, especially in countries lacking the resources to manage the risk of invasion, the threat has received scant attention, the group says.

New York Times

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