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Promising Biofuel Crops May Prove Invasive

Aug 08, 2014 10:34 AM EDT
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The next big biofuel crop may prove more of a curse than a blessing if introduced to certain parts of the world. That is what experts are now saying, worried that new biofuel plants will gain approval without consideration for how they might impact local ecosystems.

Now, Lauren Quinn, and invasive plant ecologist at the University of Illinois, has developed a set of regulatory definitions and provisions for growers and officials to consider before anything else.

"There are not a lot of existing regulations that would prevent the planting of potentially invasive species at the state or federal levels," Quinn explained in a statement.

She believes that even when there are some regulatory laws in place, they are often out-of-date and poorly define what an invasive species is.

"Our definition of invasive is 'a population exhibiting a net negative impact or harm to the target ecosystem,'" Quinn added. "We want to establish guidelines that will be simple for regulators and informed by the ecological literature and our own knowledge."

The ecologist and her team of researchers also crafted a list of 49 pre-existing, low-risk biofuel plants from which growers can choose. Quinn said that ideally, her list will be taken seriously by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is currently making some questionable decisions.

"Some of the biofeedstocks currently being examined by the EPA for approval, like pennycress, have a high risk for invasion," Quinn said. "Others have vague names ... with no species name, which is problematic."

She also mentions the Miscanthus species as an example. A tall sub-tropic or tropic grass, Miscanthus is difficult to control and spreads like a weed. Only sterile hybrid species of the plant have been identified as easy-to-control.

However, "the EPA has approved 'Miscanthus' as a feedstock without specifying a species or genotype," Quinn noted. "That... could mean higher-risk fertile types could be approved without additional oversight."

Quinn and her co-workers say they want to remove uncertainty from an important or promising field, eliminating the risk that a new biofeul crop could cause more harm than good.

A study detailing the regulations was published in the journal GCB Bioenergy on August 6.

A study detailing the species list was published in the journal Bioenergy Research on July 27.

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