Invasive Biofuel Crops an Overlooked Danger

GLAND, Switzerland, February 19, 2010 (ENS) – The risk that biofuel crops will become invasive and outcompete native species is increasing as more advanced biofuel crops are planted, according to new research into this previously neglected but potentially costly problem.

A new report by the nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, finds it is “likely that the cost of an invasion by a biofuel feedstock or associated pest would, in the long run, outweigh any economic benefit offered by biofuel development.”

“The economic costs of invasive species are extremely high,” the IUCN report states, relying on a 2006 calculation by the Convention on Biological Diversity that puts the total annual cost of invasive species to the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, India and Brazil at over US$100 billion.

Most of this cost is the result of reduced productivity of agriculture, forestry and other production systems, but direct costs include damage to infrastructure, lost tourism revenue and costs of eradication, containment and management. Indirect costs include loss of ecosystem services, as well as loss of traditional livelihoods.

In view of these costs, the IUCN outlines recommendations for decision makers and biofuel producers to minimize the risk of invasive biofuel crops.

“Current biofuel production is based on established food crops, and while this raises other sustainability concerns, the risk of invasion is not large,” says Nadine McCormick, IUCN Energy Network coordinator. “However, this risk will increase exponentially as new plants that grow fast with many seeds in pretty much any land are cultivated for more advanced biofuels.”

Prosopis juliflora thicket covers extensive areas in Ethiopia. (Photo by Arne Wit courtesy IUCN)

The report details how Prosopis, a group of Central and South American species that seemed ideal for second-generation biofuels, have become a major headache in other parts of the world.

Prosopis are fast growing, have low nutrient requirements and are able to access deep sub-surface water in dry areas. They are nitrogen fixing and can improve soil fertility. So, Prosopis species were introduced to Australia, Asia, and dryland Africa for fuelwood, fodder, shade, to improve soils and reduce soil erosion.

But Prosopis proved to be invasive “due to traits such as rapid growth, abundant seed production, the tendency to form impenetrable thickets, the ability to thrive in dry, saline soils, and foliage that is unpalatable to livestock,” the report states.

When demand collapsed, many Prosopis plantations were abandoned without adequate management and eradication, and the thickets now cover millions of hectares in Africa, impacting grazing and traditional pastoralist livelihoods.

The dense thickets have outcompeted local species and lowered ground and stream flow levels in watersheds. Despite these negative effects, some positive benefits from Prosopis include wood and charcoal so there is often conflict over plans to control or eradicate it.

“Biological invasions from the introduced species themselves, as well as from the production processes, are real risks to biodiversity and livelihoods,” says Geoffrey Howard, IUCN Global Invasive Species Coordinator. “The risks can be reduced by following the guidelines we’ve set out.”

IUCN developed these guidelines through an interactive process of consulting experts from regional government, plant protection organizations, research institutions, NGOs and the private sector. The guidelines were developed following two workshops hosted by IUCN in Nairobi, Kenya and an extensive consultation.

Jatropha (Photo by Dinesh Valke courtesy IUCN)

“The most important action is prevention,” says the IUCN. Biofuel crops are not, by definition, invasive but they can be, depending on the area where they are cultivated and how the crop is grown. For instance, giant reed and elephant grasses both have a history of becoming invasive in many ecosystems, so particular care needs to be taken when assessing the risk of invasion when they are introduced into a new environment.

Jatropha curcas is known to have invasive tendencies in Western Australia, but that does not necessarily mean that it will be invasive in India where it is currently being produced for biofuels.

Researchers at the Florida Native Plant Society have rung alarm bells, warning that jatropha could become an invasive species in Florida, as kudzu and melaleuca have. Scientists at the University of Florida have rejected claims that jatropha is similar to these other southern plant invaders. Still, critics of jatropha note that a predictive tool developed in Australia that has 90 percent accuracy in determining whether a plant will become uncontrollable, predicts that outcome for jatropha in Florida.

Key recommendations in the IUCN report touch on four phases of keeping biofuel crops from becoming invasive species – planning, importation, and production plus the final phase of transportation and processing.

In the planning phase, all stakeholders – governments, developers and investors – should conduct a cost-benefit analysis and environmental assessment that includes the potential costs of an invasion. These plans should include a contingency fund as insurance for any future remedial actions and a commitment from the outset to be vigilant to the invasion possibility, and take measures to prevent spread outside the project area.

In the importation phase, a robust quarantine system must be in place. Governments should strengthen their capacity to monitor and enforce phytosanitary regulations and exclude any pests associated with the biofuel plants.

In the production phase, an Environmental Management Plan audited by a neutral third party should be in place. A contingency plan should be in place in the event of an escape of a plant species or pest organism that could cause an invasion. A contingency fund to pay for eradication, containment, management, or restoration should be in place.

In the transportation and processing phase, risks of invasion should be minimized by reducing the distances that viable feedstocks are transported, and, ideally, converting feedstocks to biofuels on-site. Governments and developers should ensure adequate monitoring of transport vehicles for the presence of seeds, plant feedstock remnants and pests. And all stakeholders should promote awareness among transporters about the risks of invasive species.

These guidelines were developed by IUCN in close cooperation with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, a multi-stakeholder initiative that has developed a Standard for sustainable biofuel production that addresses environmental, social and economic issues.

The RSB Standard, published in November 2009, includes a set of principles and criteria, compliance indicators, guidance documents and a certification system.

Click here to read the IUCN Recommendations for preventing biofuel crops from becoming invasive species.

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