NWF report addresses invasive potential of bioenergy crops

By Erin Voegele | April 19, 2012

The National Wildlife Federation recently published a report that addresses the potential impact that bioenergy feedstocks considered to be invasive species could have on natural ecosystems within the U.S. In a statement announcing the paper, the NWF stresses that America needs—without question—to transition to cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy, but needs to do so responsibly. The report, “Growing Risk: Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks,” explores several ways in which feedstock producers and other stakeholders can help mitigate the occurrence of detrimental, unintended consequences that could result from the cultivation of potentially invasive species.

The report specifically addresses several cellulosic feedstocks, including giant reed, reed canarygrass and napiergrass, as well as the algae strain cylindro. The U.S. EPA is currently working to finalize rulemaking that would establish feedstock pathways for giant reed and napiergrass under RFS2. Once finalized, the rulemaking would enable biofuel producers to manufacture RFS2 compliant fuels with these feedstocks.

According to the NWF report, giant reed is already being grown as a bioenergy crop in Florida, and has been shown to show invasive tendencies in riparian ecosystems in states across the southern half of the country. The NWF also points out that reed canarygrass, which is being proposed as for cultivation in the upper peninsula of Michigan, has been shown to be invasive in wetlands, rivers and lakes. Furthermore, the NWF report notes that has been listed as an invasive plant in Florida, but is being developed for cultivation in the Gulf Coast region. Finally, the report describes cylindro as a type of algae associated with toxic algal bloom in the Great Lakes region.

While there can be risks associated with careless cultivation of these crops, the NWF states in its study that harm can often be minimized and prevented by taking sensible precautions. The NWF outlines six specific steps that can be taken to reduce risks associated with these and other potential feedstocks. The NWF’s suggestions include:

- Ensuring bioenergy development encourages ecological restoration and wildlife habitat improvement though the use of waste materials, native plants and forest residues.

- Coordinated efforts between government entities to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of known invasive species through Weed Risk Assessment screening protocols.

- Government monitoring, early detection and rapid response protocols paid for by feedstock producers through insurance or other financial mechanisms.

- The adoption of best management plans by feedstock producers to monitory and mitigate invasiveness risks.

- Holding feedstock producers liable for invasions by feedstocks they develop.

- Better accounting of economic risks associated with invasiveness when assessing the costs and benefits of bioenergy projects.

While it is important to address the risk of invasive species, cultivation practices and other precautions can also help to reduce the risk of invasive spread. In an article published in the May issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine, Jeff Steiner, USDA Agricultural Research Service program leader for Biomass Production Systems, explained how feedstock producers can minimize these risks. Specifically, Steiner pointed out that growing feedstocks in the most appropriate environment will be key. One example offered by Steiner addressed the cultivation of napiergrass. Growing that feedstock in USDA plant heartiness zones 8A, 8B and 9 help ensure that the plant won’t flower. Steiner also notes it might be possible to genetically manipulate feedstocks to stem invasive tendencies.