Weeds and Biofuels — A Warning

Stephen DeAngelis

May 30, 2008

My most recent post about biofuels [Cultivating the Right Biofuel] focused on an article by Roger Cohen who is fearful that the connection between increased use of food grains for biofuel and rising food prices will cripple a promising industry that deserves to be fostered. I’ve written a couple of posts on the connection between rising food prices and the increased production of biofuels [Search for Oil Alternatives Pushes Food Prices Higher and Rising Food Prices take the World’s Stage]. I made it clear in the latter post that using food sources to produce biofuel was only one of the reasons that food prices were rising. Cohen was pushing for the use of sugar cane as stock material for creating biofuel. Others have suggested using crops that have little or no potential as a food source [see my post The Potential of Pond Scum]. Some analysts are warning, however, that the search for a non-food source of biofuel could create havoc as well [“New Trend in Biofuels Has New Risks,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, 21 May 2008].

“In the past year, as the diversion of food crops like corn and palm to make biofuels has helped to drive up food prices, investors and politicians have begun promoting newer, so-called second-generation biofuels as the next wave of green energy. These, made from non-food crops like reeds and wild grasses, would offer fuel without the risk of taking food off the table, they said. But now, biologists and botanists are warning that they, too, may bring serious unintended consequences. Most of these newer crops are what scientists label invasive species — that is, weeds — that have an extraordinarily high potential to escape biofuel plantations, overrun adjacent farms and natural land, and create economic and ecological havoc in the process, they now say.”

I suspect there are a lot of potential consequences from using arable land to grow crops for biofuels (be they a food or a non-food crop). It will take a lot of land to grow enough raw material to make a dent in the overall fuel market. Removing that much land from producing food stuffs isn’t going to help lower food prices regardless of what is grown on that land. The hope, of course, is that second-generation biofuel crops can be grown on land that is unfit to grow food crops — because weeds seem to grow everywhere. That is also the crux of the problem.

“At a United Nations meeting in Bonn, Germany, … scientists from the Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as other groups, presented a paper with a warning about invasive species. ‘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.”

Many areas of the United States could offer an earful about their unhappy experiences with invasive species of plants of animals. Nutria (large rat-like creatures), for example, were introduced from South America into the United States in the 1930s. They are now a major problem along the Gulf Coast where they damage vegetation and destroy habitat in wetlands. Zebra mussels, which were introduced into U.S. waters from Eurasia in 1988, compete with native species and clog pipes. They are now a problem throughout many of the river systems in mid-America and are continuing to spread. Hydrilla, a native African plant, was introduced into the United States in the 1960s. It crowds out native species and is a problem in most of the U.S. coastline states. Snakehead fish, Africanized bees, cane toads, fire ants, European Gypsy Moths, are just a few of the hundreds (if not thousands) of invasive species creating challenges in America. The point is, the caution being sounded by the analysts is probably justified. As expected, the biofuel industry claims they are crying “wolf.”

“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.”

The conservation analysts fear that growing pressure from governments and the potential for quick profits will push investors to move much more quickly to plant crops than is wise.

“The European Union and the United States have both instituted biofuel targets as a method to reduce carbon emissions. The European Union’s target of 10 percent biofuel use in transportation by 2020 is binding. As such, politicians are anxiously awaiting the commercial perfection of second-generation biofuels. The European Union is funding a project to introduce the ‘giant reed, a high-yielding, non-food plant into Europe Union agriculture,’ according to its proposal. The reed is environmentally friendly and a cost-effective crop, poised to become the ‘champion of biomass crops,’ the 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 it is built. But the project has been opposed by the Florida Native Plants Society and a number of scientists because of its proximity to the Everglades, where giant reed overgrowth could be dangerous, they said. The giant reed, previously used mostly in decorations and in making musical instruments — is a fast-growing, thirsty species that has drained wetlands and clogged drainage systems in other places where it has been planted. It is also highly flammable and increases the risk of fires. … Jatropha, the darling of the second-generation biofuels community, is now being cultivated widely in East Africa in brand new biofuel plantations. But jatropha has been recently banned by two Australian states as an invasive species. If jatropha, which is poisonous, overgrows farmland or pastures, it could be disastrous for the local food supply in Africa, experts said. But Mr. De Greef said jatropha had little weed potential in most areas, adding: ‘Just because a species has caused a problem in one place doesn’t make it a weed everywhere.'”

The tension between those promoting biofuels and those who see biofuels creating challenges of their own is bound to continue. There does appear, however, to be some room for compromise.

“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,’ Dr. Howard 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 is 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. ‘With biofuels we need to do proper assessments and take appropriate measures so they don’t get out of the gate, so to speak,’ he said. That assessment, he added, must take a broad geographical perspective since invasive species don’t respect borders.”

Rosenthal reports that the annual cost of trying to control invasive species is roughly $1.4 trillion (or about 5 percent of the global economy). That figure alone should inspire politicians to regulate closely what kind of crops they permit to be grown for biofuel production. With oil prices continuing to set records and some analysts now predicting a barrel of crude will top $200, those calling for a “go slow” approach may find their pleas for caution falling on deaf ears.