Scholars warn of dangers associated with biofuel use

By Ryan Davis

In the search for alternative sources of energy, some local experts are calling for caution when selecting potential biofuel crops citing their possible invasive nature.

In the Sept. 22 issue of “Science,” an article composed in part by S. Raghu of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign and Adam Davis, a weed ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Urbana, stressed the need to proceed with caution given the detrimental effect certain crops being considered as biofuel candidates may have on local ecosystems.

“This article is not about being anti-biofuel,” said S. Raghu, who considers the article to be a call for prudence when weighing the benefits and costs of introducing certain potential bioenergy crops into selected ecosystems.

According to the article, the characteristics of some plants currently under consideration for optimum biofuel applicants also make them potentially threatening invasive species. For instance, high growth rates, efficient use of water, efficient photosynthetic mechanisms, and no known pests or diseases are all desired traits of a potential biofuel crop the article stated. However, the article pushes the idea that these very same desired traits increase their potential invasiveness.

The article stresses that an invasive plant species can have negative economical and environmental impact.

“Invasive plant species have the potential to disrupt native plant communities, alter ecosystems and reduce biodiversity,” said Davis, who is also an assistant professor in crop sciences at the University.

The search for potential bioenergy crops gained momentum after President George W. Bush announced the U.S. Renewable Energy Initiative in his 2006 State of the Union address. Bush called on the scientific community to identify potential biofuel alternatives to offset the present reliance on fossil fuels.

Stephen Long, professor of crop sciences, voiced concern over the article’s treatment of Miscanthus, a native plant species being considered as a potential bioenergy crop. The article states that what makes the plant a potentially ideal bioenergy crop is also what could enhance its invasiveness.

Long, whose focus of study deals specifically with Miscanthus, said the article failed to point out that Miscanthus has an unequal number of chromosomes and is, in effect, sterile and unable to spread by seed.

“The seed is the easiest way for a plant to spread,” said Long. “I think that’s crucial, and they were well aware of it.”

The ability of a crop to spread by seed is a dominant factor in whether it will become invasive, said Long.

The omission of this information “gives their article more impact,” he said.

Long also said that Europe has been testing Miscanthus for over 30 years.

“It’s very low-risk,” he said.

Raghu and Davis, however, still say that caution and a cost-benefit analysis are necessary prior to selecting potential biofuel crops which take into account economic and ecological considerations.

Both said that the benefits could very well outweigh the costs but that this should be known prior to introducing potentially invasive plant species into local ecosystems.

“Many of these may well be safe, but we don’t know yet,” said S. Raghu.

“The science hasn’t been done yet. It is more prudent to do this now than after the releases,” S.Raghu said.

Long, however, was adamant in pointing out what will happen if alternative sources of energy are not introduced in a timely manner.

“What is the alternative?” Long asked. “The alternative is climate change if we do not find alternative sources of energy.”