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Published August 18, 2014, 10:42 AM

Biofuel crop laws needed

If the hottest new plant grown as a biofuel crop is approved based solely on its greenhouse gas emission profile, its potential as the next invasive species might not be discovered until it’s too late.

By: Debra Levey Larson, Agweek

URBANA, Ill. — If the hottest new plant grown as a biofuel crop is approved based solely on its greenhouse gas emission profile, its potential as the next invasive species might not be discovered until it’s too late.

In response to this need to prevent such invasions, researchers at the University of Illinois have developed both a set of regulatory definitions and provisions and a list of 49 low-risk biofuel plants.

Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist at University of Illinois’ Energy Biosciences Institute, and her colleagues set out to create a list of low-risk biofuel crops that can be safely grown for conversion to ethanol, but realized in the process that regulations were needed to instill checks and balances in the system.

“There are not a lot of existing regulations that would prevent the planting of potentially invasive species at the state or federal levels,” Quinn says. “For example, there are currently only four states (Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, and Maryland) that have any laws relating to how bioenergy crops can be grown,”

In approving new biofuel products, Quinn says the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t formally consider invasiveness at all — just greenhouse gas emissions related to their production.

“Last summer, the EPA approved two known invaders, Arundo donax (giant reed) and Pennisetum purpurem (napier grass), despite public criticism,” says A. Bryan Endres, University of Illinois professor of agricultural law and coauthor of the research to define legislative language for potentially invasive bioenergy feedstocks.

Part of the problem is that there is no clear scientific definition of what it means to be invasive. The team of researchers used fundamental biological, ecological and management principles to create a definition.

“Our definition of invasive is ‘a population exhibiting a net negative impact or harm to the target ecosystem,’ for example,” Quinn says. “We want to establish guidelines that will be simple for regulators and informed by the ecological literature and our own knowledge. We also need to recognize that some native plants can become weedy or invasive. It’s complicated and requires some understanding of the biology of these plants.”

Quinn says ideally the definitions and suggested regulations could become part of a revised Renewable Fuels Standard administered by EPA, which would require Congress to make the changes. The proposed regulations could also be adopted at the state level.

“Some of the biofeedstocks currently being examined by the EPA for approval, like pennycress, have a high risk for invasion,” Quinn says. “Others have vague names, such as jatropha, with no species name, which is problematic.”

According to Quinn, the list of 49 low-risk feedstock plants will serve to clear up the confusion about plant names. The list was developed using an existing weed risk assessment protocol, which includes 49 questions that must be asked about a particular species based on its biology, ecology and its history of being invasive in other parts of the world.

“Those questions are difficult to answer for new taxa, including plants that haven’t been around long or have just recently been developed by breeders,” Quinn says. “This will be the first time that they are out in the environment, so we don’t know what their potential for invasiveness is.”

Quinn stresses the native plants that are included in the list are only recommended as the native genotypes grown in their native region, because they could be considered invasive if grown in a different region.

Editor’s note: Levey Larson is a news and public affairs specialist with the University of Illinois.

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