Non-food biocrops for biodiesel. The next invasive super weeds?

As entrepreneurs turn their attention to second generation, non-food biocrops, a new potential issue arises. Many of these plants, like Jatropha, are basically weeds that can grow anywhere. Will these weeds escape from biofuel harvesting areas and become invasive species, like kudzu?

The New York Times examines the issue in today’s paper.

“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.

Controlling the spread of such plants could prove difficult, the experts said, producing “greater financial losses than gains.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature encapsulated the message like this: “Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country.”

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

“With biofuels, there’s always a hurry,” said Geoffrey Howard, an invasive species expert with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “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 said the risk of those crops morphing into weed problems is overstated, noting that proposed biofuel crops, while they have some potential to become weeds, are not plants that inevitably turn 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.

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