The Heat Is Online

Biofuel Chase can Spread "Invasive Species"

Fuel crops 'pose invasion risk', May 19, 2008


Nations should avoid planting biofuel crops that have a high risk of becoming invasive species, a report warns.


A study by the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP) said only a few countries have systems in place to assess the risk or contain an outbreak.


It has listed all the crops used to produce biofuels, and urged governments to only select low-risk varieties.


The global cost of tackling invasive species costs $1.4 trillion (£700bn) each year, the report estimates.


"Many countries are currently looking at growing high-yielding crops for the production of biofuels to address imminent energy shortages and reduce the impact of climate change," the report's authors wrote.


"This usually involves the importation of foreign (alien) species of plants that are known for their fast and productive growth.


"If these initiatives are not carefully assessed, however, the cultivation of some popular species will increase two of the major causes of biodiversity loss: clearing and conversion of yet more natural areas for monocultures, and invasion by non-native species."


One step ahead


GISP, a partnership of four conservation organisations, including IUCN and the Nature Conservancy, fear the biofuels boom could expose gaps in nations' bio-security measures.


"Prevention is better than cure," said Geoffrey Howard, IUCN's global invasive species co-ordinator.


"We need to stop invasions before they occur. The biofuels industry is a relatively new concept so we have a unique opportunity to act early and get ahead of the game."


Stas Burgiel, a senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy and one of the study's co-authors, said the aim of the report was to offer practical guidance to those who needed it.


"A lot of the countries that we work with are developing nations that don't really have systems to evaluate deliberate introductions or the import of particular species for large-scale plantings," he told BBC News.


"The next step is to look at projects that are definitely going ahead and carry out more scientific studies in those regions."


He added that the crops which appear on the list would not be classified as invasive everywhere.


"For example, a crop like Arundo donax (giant reed), which would cause concern in North America, would not cause the same concern in its native habitat in places like Eurasia.


Giant reed, which is naturally flammable, increases the risk of wildfires in places such as California, threatening human settlements as well as native species.


It is also viewed as a problem species in water-scarce South Africa because it consumes 2,000 litres for every metre of growth.


"That sort of awareness is useful because it can help the consideration that a country uses in terms of crop selection," observed Dr Burgiel.


Risk mitigation

The ecology of potential sites for biofuels crops also affects the risk of invasion.


He explained that degraded land or areas that have been used for other purposes often increased the risk of an outbreak.


"Frequently, that provides the most suitable habitat for invasive species because there is little competition from native vegetation," he said.


The authors list a series of measures that they say can mitigate the risks, including:

  • Risk assessments - use of formal risk assessment protocols to evaluate the risk of invasion
  • Benefit/cost analysis - presenting business plans that can show real benefits before funds are made available
  • Selection of native/low-risk species - creation of incentives for the use of species that pose the lowest risk
  • Risk management - includes monitoring and contingency planning, such as control measures when an outbreak occurs

The publication of the study coincides with a key meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is being held in Bonn, Germany.


GISP says the international gathering represents the "best opportunity in a decade to take global action against invasive species".


It is also calling on delegates to back the call for risk assessments to be carried out before biofuel crops can be planted.


Biofuels A Risk For Wildlife In New Habitats-Study, May 19, 2008

OSLO - Fast-growing foreign crops used as biofuels can disrupt new habitats by ousting local plants and animals, an international report said on Tuesday.

The study, by the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP), urged governments to do more to assess 32 aggressive species such as giant reeds from West Asia or European poplar trees that can escape beyond biofuel farms and plantations.

"We want to make sure that the risks are properly understood," Stas Burgiel, policy director of GISP, told Reuters. The report was issued to coincide with a May 19-30 UN conference on protecting biodiversity in Bonn.

Invasive species can overtake new habitats, causing billions of dollars of damage, if they lack competitors or pests that keep them in check at home.

The study by GISP, which groups scientists around the world, adds to worries about side-effects of biofuels including that they push up food prices or add pressure on farmers to clear forests and other land to produce energy.

Many countries favour biofuels as alternatives to oil, costing more than $125 a barrel, and to curb climate change blamed on greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels.

The report said countries should be wary of the West Asian giant reed arundo donax, for instance, which is being introduced as a biofuel to the United States. "Naturally flammable, it increases the likelihood of wildfires -- a threat to both humans and native species in places such as California," it said.

The American mesquite tree, under consideration for biofuel production, is known as the "Devil's Tree" in Ethiopia because it has taken over larger than expected areas since it was introduced in the 1970s as a drought-resistant species.

Its 10 cm (3 inch) thorns injure both people and livestock.

And the African oil palm, recommended for biodiesel, "has already become invasive in parts of Brazil, turning areas of threatened forest from a rich mix of trees and plant life into a homogenous layer of palm leaves," it said.

The report listed nine crops of low risk as biofuels because they were not known to be aggressive invaders -- including sunflowers, soya, sugar cane, cotton and wheat.

"You don't often see wheat growing outside a wheat field. It has become so domesticated that its has to be planted," said Jeffrey Howard of the International Union for Conservation of Nature which backs GISP.

"But the giant reed is going to cause a problem almost anywhere you take it," he told Reuters.

Plants used as biofuels are part of a wider problem of invasive species ranging from rats to jellyfish.

A GISP statement said experts estimate damage from invasive species at up to five percent of the global economy. "The US alone spends $120 billion annually on the control and impacts of more than 800 invasive species infestations," It said.

The report recommended that governments should assess risks before introducing new species. Australia and New Zealand, or instance, vet new crops under tight rules on biosecurity.