How to Ensure Biofuel Crops Don’t Become Weeds

A Virginia Tech researcher, along with several others, have offered a way to ensure that plants grown for biofuels do not become an invasive weed. According to Jacob Barney, an assistance professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, careful introduction of new species for production of more energy per acre is increasingly critical, as is the evaluation of new or bioengineered plants for agricultural or horticultural uses.

L_030613-cals-jacobbarneyThe article, “Navigating the ‘Noxious’ and ‘Invasive’ Regulatory Landscape: Suggestions for Improved Regulation,” published in BioScience proposes a way to improve and streamline the regulatory methodology for evaluating the invasive potential of plants, especially biofuel feedstock. Biofuels are increasing in economic and ecological importance, said Barney, as the RFS continues to be implemented.

“We did this analysis to draw attention to state noxious weed lists and to suggest ways to help prevent additional plants from escaping cultivation and potentially becoming noxious or invasive species,” said Barney.

“According to our analysis, current noxious weed laws do not provide adequate protection to prevent invasions in natural areas, and we have a shared responsibility for proper stewardship of these landscapes,” said Lauren Quinn a research associate at the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and the lead author of the study. “Going forward, it will be essential to base legal reforms on an awareness of this responsibility and, more importantly, on a rational public dialogue that includes sound science.”

BioScience2013-02-coverThe authors also advocate liability for industry developers who fail to show due diligence in evaluating the potential invasiveness of a new cultivar. This will help take the expense of noxious weed control away from taxpayers while protecting conscientious biofuels developers, some of whom have backed away bioenergy farming for fear of lawsuits from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The article further points out that a delay in state listing of an invasive species as a noxious plant, or a failure to reconcile state and IPC and EPC lists, can have far-reaching ecological impacts, since funding for weed control is generally funneled into formally listed noxious plants. Because control is easiest in the early stages of infestation when the political process involved in listing a weed may not have even begun, the financial effects of this gap can be massive.

To help remedy this situation, the authors are proposing, “objective and science-based policies for the regulation of introduced plant species, especially but not limited to bioenergy crops.” These policies, they note, should restrict known invaders while allowing “flexibility to investigate and commercialize noninvasive bioenergy feedstock.” Listing would be faster and more inclusive if revamped regulatory boards with input from invasive and exotic weed councils evaluated plants based on criteria such as the plant’s history, ecology, reproductive potential, and the potential for rapid spreading.

One thought on “How to Ensure Biofuel Crops Don’t Become Weeds

  1. This article clearly raises issues that are deserving of discussion, but at the end of the day, I don’t think the authors’ proposed approach of a 50-state solution is politically or realistically feasible (which they themselves acknowledge). Short of such a regulatory overhaul, the best approach would be for energy crop developers to consult with appropriate federal and state regulators at an early stage, to ensure that the species, or the method in which it is to be grown, does not pose environmental (or regulatory) problems, and for companies to voluntarily adopt best practices for growth and management of potentially invasive species. The need to monitor uses of potentially invasive species must be balanced against the need for a clear regulatory path that does not hinder innovation. I’ve posted a more complete response to this article on my blog, Advanced Biotechnology for Biofuels, at http://wp.me/pKTxe-6I.