NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 21, 2008

In the past year, as the diversion of food crops like corn and palm to make biofuels has helped to drive up food prices, investors and politicians have begun promoting newer, so-called second-generation biofuels as the next wave of green energy. These, made from non-food crops like reeds and wild grasses, would offer fuel without the risk of taking food off the table, says the New York Times.

But now, biologists and botanists are warning that they, too, may bring serious unintended consequences:   

  • Most of these newer crops are what scientists label invasive species -- that is, weeds -- that have an extraordinarily high potential to escape biofuel plantations.
  • Once they do, they overrun adjacent farms and natural land, and create economic and ecological havoc in the process.
  • Currently, the Global Invasive Species Program estimates that the damage from all invasive species costs the world more than $1.4 trillion annually -- five percent of the global economy.

Consider Jatropha, the darling of the second-generation biofuels community:

  • The plant is currently being cultivated widely in East Africa in brand new biofuel plantations.
  • But jatropha has been recently banned by two Australian states as an invasive species.
  • If jatropha, which is poisonous, overgrows farmland or pastures, it could be disastrous for the local food supply in Africa.

Similarly, biofuel plantations for giant reed production are being opposed in Europe and Florida because of the havoc they could wreak on ecosystems in those places.  And at a recent United Nations meeting, scientists from the Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as other groups, presented a paper with a warning about the potential danger of invasive species.

Source: Elizabeth Rosenthal, "New Trend in Biofuels Has New Risks," New York Times, May 21, 2008.

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