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Jun 10, 2008

Weeds and Reeds - The Invasion of the Second Generation Biofuel Crops

  • Does a recent trend in biofuels risk the ecosystem of host countries importing high-yield non-food crops?

    The introduction of non-food crops to make use of low-yield landmass has recently been highlighted in an article by the New York Times. Overall, the consensus by several expert groups is that imported crops such as the giant reed are deemed invasive by Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

    The giant reed was amongst the species named in a report issued on the sidelines of a major UN conference on biodiversity, where an alliance of four expert groups (including the Global Invasive Species Program) urged governments to select low-risk species of crops for biofuels and impose new controls to manage invasive plants.

    The report, Biofuel Crops and Non-Native Species: Mitigating the Risk of Invasion, points the finger in particular at the giant reed (Arundo donax), a native of West Asia that has become invasive in parts of North and Central America. Proposed as a biofuel crop, the reed is naturally flammable and thus increases the likelihood of wildfires.

    It's a very thirsty reed, sucking up 2,000 litres (500 gallons) of water for one metre (3.25 feet) of standing growth, which adds to stress in dry regions such as Florida where a company is proposing to generate energy by burning reeds (not exactly biofuel granted but usage of an invasive species for energy generating purposes).

    Couple that with the recently passed, pork-heavy farm bill (link) that limits external sugarcane imports to 15%, i.e. n. American sugar producers are guaranteed 85% of the domestic sugar market, and you have a clear incentive for farmers introducing more and higher yield biofuel crops. In fact, the Bush administration is granting around $1 billion to companies to build cellulosic ethanol plants, which may use a range of feedstocks. Why the government is still subsidizing ethanol production is beyond me but the introduction of invasive species into the ecosystems at a scale large enough to support biofuel production would add to the amount spent on controlling invasive species : $120 billion for 800+ species.

    For a recent article in Science on policy see here.


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