The Questionable Authority

I’ve Got the Green Fuel Blues

The policy forum in this weeks issue of Science discusses a potential problem with many of the crops that people are talking about using as biofuels. In what has to be one of the more striking instances of cosmic irony, it is entirely possible that some of the plants being considered as biofuel crops might actually be bad for the environment.

The reason for this is actually relatively simple: many of the ecological traits that are found in the ideal biofuel crop are exactly the same as the ecological traits that are found in nasty invasive species.

Ideal Biofuel Crop Invasive Plants
C4 photosynthesis C4 photosynthesis
Rapid spring growth Rapid spring growth
No known pests/diseases No known pests/diseases
Can reproduce asexually Can reproduce asexually
Sterile seeds

I should probably note at this point that a plant doesn’t need to have all the listed characteristics of a nasty invasive species to actually become a nasty invasive species. The more of those characteristics a plant has, the greater the chance that it might become an invasive species.

As the authors of the paper point out, this indicates that we’re going to need to be cautious about introducing biofuel crops, especially if we don’t want to trade in one set of problems for another.


  1. #1 bigTom
    September 22, 2006

    Interesting, and not funny. Of course if we use plants that are already in the environment with little or no modification we are OK? Very rapid genetic engineering and/or imports from another ecosystem -point well taken.

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    September 22, 2006

    The main point that the authors of the article make is that decisions on biofuel crops will need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and that environmental study is needed before introducing a biofuel crop to an area. This will likely mean that not all biofuel crops will be acceptable everywhere.

  3. #3 SMC
    September 23, 2006

    So, my idea of using genetically enhanced Kudzu for rapid production of biofuel might not be ideal?…

  4. #4 Chris Hyland
    September 23, 2006

    I think a bigger problem is the tens of millions of acres of forest and peat bogs already destroyed in countires like Malaysia and Singapore to make room for biofuel crops. Biodiesel is currently the most carbon intensive fuel available.

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