Biofuel Crops Make Great Invasive Species

When we hear about growing crops specifically to be used for biofuels, we get nervous. That’s because many of those crops, including Miscanthus and Giant Reed, are invasive in the US.

The very characteristics that make a plant particularly useful as a source of biomass energy – rapid growth, competitiveness, tolerance of a wide range of climate conditions – are the same characteristics that make a plant a potentially highly invasive species.

Invasive plants, animals and insects are devastating our native wildlands across the country – they’re the second highest cause of species loss after habitat destruction.

Indeed, they are synonymous with habitat destruction, because there’s no habitat left once they take over.

Researchers estimate that nearly half the species listed as threatened or endangered are at risk, at least in part, because of invasive species.

In the East, we see massive vines like Asian Bittersweet and Honeysuckle suffocating and strangling our native trees, garlic mustard and mugwort covering the ground, and multiflora rose crowding out meadows. In Maine, you can’t drive a mile without seeing Japanese Knotwood, the same is true for Kudzu in the south. Then there are the insects devastating forests coast to coast, and aquatic invasives like Common Reed and Eurasian milfiol suffocating wetlands and lakes.

Billions of dollars are spent each year to control the spread of invasive species in the US by federal and state agencies, and more often, even towns.

Numerous non-native and genetically modified species are being considered for use as biomass feedstocks, such as Miscanthus, which hails from Africa and Asia. It may seem like a good idea to get renewable energy from grasses grown on marginal lands not suitable for crops, but without proper precaution, the next big wave of invasive species could devastate native ecosystems.

"You can make money and a help native wildlife by growing native plants for bioenergy," says Steve Flick, board chair of the Show Me Energy Cooperative. "Missouri farmers are doing this right now as part of the Show Me Energy Cooperative, and it’s a model that can work throughout the country."

In addition to using appropriate native species, such as Switchgrass, National Wildlife Federation recommends strong monitoring programs and policies, and encouraging ecosystem restoration to improve wildlife habitat through future bioenergy development.

Giant reed, for example, is being used right now in Florida. Introduced into North American agriculture nearly two centuries ago, it’s a very fast growing grass that’s a highly invasive nuisance in states from California to South Carolina. This water-hogging invasive species is near impossible to control, out-competes native plants, threatens wildlife, and strains local ecosystems and taxpayer wallets.

Rather than planting new, potentially invasive species, why not clear out the ones we already have and use that for bioenergy?

Read the report by the National Wildlife Federation, Growing Risk: Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks:

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Comments on “Biofuel Crops Make Great Invasive Species”

  1. Miscanthus Fact

    Miscanthus is not invasive. The ornamental variety miscanthus sinensis is considered invasive. The biomess crop miscanthus x giantess (giant miscanthus) is a sterile plant that spreads only through vegetative cuttings and propagation.

  2. Tom Harrington

    Miscanthus Giganteus, the type common for biofuel, is not from Africa. Decades of field tests in Europe and North America have proven that it is not invasive.

  3. The Lorax

    The real shame will be if we squander a fleeting opportunity to stich back together some of North America’s lost native prairies. There are virtually no reasons not to focus precious time and resources on that effort. Yield and profit seem to always lead in other directions. I have seen where those twsted roads go, and it does not usually end well (especially for the farmer). Let us quit designing crops to fit our perceived needs, but rather design our cropping systems to fit the prairie crop designed for our land.

  4. Lets Not Forget Economics

    One can produce in upwards of 10 times the dry biomass per acre in the southeast with species like giant reed (Arundo Donax) and miscanthus compared to various prairie species. This is on lands that are marginal and not irrigated.
    There is a place for each species in various regions of the nation. We cannot limit our options.
    With our current domestic fuel procurement options of tar sands, deep sea drilling or fracking, having a manageable high yielding non native grass species, grown on underutilized lands is a alternative that makes sense.
    There are pro’s and con’s to every option, we just need to put them in perspective.
    I want nothing more than to have as economical environmentally friendly option to fuel our nation. As well get our troops out of harms way protecting oil reserves that we currently depend on.

  5. The Lorax

    Economics led us into the dust bowl, the deadzones in the gulf and the great lakes, and an average soil loss of over seven tons per acre annually on American farmland. Excuse me if I don’t follow your economic logic here, but if you think that the difference in yield on a couple million acres is going to make a difference in our dependence on foreign oil or fossil fuels as a whole,…you will surely be disappointed in the future. The cost of eventually fixing these mistakes is never factored into the oversimplified economic equations, it is passed on to the private landowner and taxpayer many years after the economists have moved on to the next equation. For us to depend on biofuels SUSTAINABLY, reduction of use is the only way the math works. We are not going to grow our way out of this situation. Reducing our demand for fossil fuels is critical. Even more critical is setting aside our insatiable desire for profit and wealth and replacing it with a land ethic. If we are truly a great nation, we will lead by example, and that would be a great start.
    Power to (and from) the Prairie!


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