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: