Experts On Watch

02:49AM Aug 27, 2014
storm cloud over field MO

New biofuel feedstocks spur invasive weed concerns

New plant species are constantly being evaluated as potential biofuel crops. But researchers at the University of Illinois want to ensure the top contenders won’t become the next invasive species. 

Researchers have developed a set of regulatory definitions and provisions, along with a list of 49 low-risk plant species that can be safely grown for conversion to ethanol.

"There are not a lot of existing regulations that would prevent the planting of potentially invasive species at the state or federal levels," says Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist at the University of Illinois’ Energy Biosciences Institute. 

Only four states—Florida, Mississippi, Oregon and Maryland—have laws about how bioenergy crops can be grown, but they contain poorly or not-at-all defined language about invasive species, Quinn says. 

The science behind the matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t look at invasiveness when considering a biofuel crop—its focus is on the production of greenhouse gas emissions. 

"Last summer, EPA approved two known invaders, giant reed and napier grass, despite public criticism," says A. Bryan Endres, University of Illinois professor of agricultural law.

Part of the problem is the lack of scientific definitions of invasiveness. University of Illinois faculty use biological, ecological and management principles to define invasive species. 

Plus, some plants can be native to one part of the U.S. and invasive in others, Quinn adds.

"For example, Panicum virgatum is the variety of switchgrass that is low-risk everywhere except for Washington, Oregon and California," she says. "Future genotypes might be bred with more invasive characteristics, such as rapid growth or prolific seed production, and have higher risk."  

The researchers hope the list provides farmers with clearly identified low-invasion risk options and reduces conflicts between objectives for increasing renewable fuel production and reducing unintended impacts and costs resulting from the spread of invasive plants. Quinn also hopes these definitions will be added to the Renewable Fuels Standard and adopted at the state level.