Biofuels: how many are invasive alien species?

(1 page)
April, 2012

Helena Paul

ECO 40(3)

It was interesting to hear from Brazil this evening that the biofuels text was unbalanced and too negative about biofuels and that Jatropha, for example, is good for climate mitigation. It was also instructive to learn that there are no invasive alien species issues around biofuels. Considering that there a lot of scientific evidence points to some biofuels also being invasive species, it really made one wonder if some delegates realise that SBSTTA is actually a scientific body. Just some of the invasive alien species considered for biofuel include perennial grasses such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), miscanthus (Miscanthus spp.), and giant reed (Arundo donax). Then there are trees such from the poplar family (Populus spp.), willows (Salix spp.) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp). In addition we have Jatropha (Jatropha curcas), African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), and moringa (Moringa oleifera).

This is only a very short extract from a long list. A number of these species have already demonstrated their invasiveness in different regions. Some readily create an invasive monoculture that wipes out biodiversity. Others combine to create alien landscapes that superficially resemble simplified ecosystems. We also heard from NGO Searice of the Philippines that algae ‘without a name’, destined for biofuel production, were going to be introduced in a marine sanctuary – an area of one million hectares close to the shore, a region regularly visited by dolphins and whales. The fact that these algae were apparently nameless caused Searice to wonder if they were actually a product of synthetic biology. Local communities successfully resisted the project, using the precautionary principle. However, these algae were also destined for release in other areas and we do not know what happened there. The invasive potential of algae, which are often touted as a second generation biofuels ‘solution’, is considerable, as they are very fast growing and highly adaptable, yet this capacity is often dismissed as negligible. However, their swift growth and adaptability suggest otherwise. In the case of algae, their spores could escape from ‘contained use’ and spread easily and rapidly over a large area and their adaptive capacity is also likely to be considerable. It is not surprising that biofuel species are invasive: they are often chosen for characteristics they share with known invasive species: they are weedy and hardy, they often need less water and can tolerate poor soils. Furthermore they often have several ways to propagate themselves and spread. They are perfectly poised to invade wherever they may be introduced.

This means that using genetic engineering on such species bears an additional risk, and the use of synthetic biology would simply multiply the hazards. There are a number of such projects with the aim of producing biofuels. It is impossible to predict precisely what may happen, because of the many unknown factors involved if invasive species are genetically engineered, and, in the case of algae, the product of synthetic biology.