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.

Jatropha, a non-food biodiesel source

250px-jatropha4.jpgWith growing concern about the use of food crops as a fuel source; the Central American Jatropha tree is looking pretty attractive.  The tree produces seeds that are as much as 40% oil that can used as biodiesel.  In addition, the remainder of the seeds can be used for biomass.

According this article published by Reuters,  U.K.-based D1 Oils Plc has teamed up with BP to plant jatropha trees with an increased yield of 60% when the trees are fully grown in 6 years.  By all estimates they will be making money on the resulting oil if crude oil stays at least $60 a barrel.  Given that it is currently at $95 dollars a barrel, this shouldn’t be a problem at all.

The plant grows in barren land and needs little water.  The company will be planting in southern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia; covering 50,000 hectares. 

Check out this previous post about Jatropha in Mali, and this post about how Jatropha can grow even in the desert with almost no watering or care at all.