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Environmental effects of biofuels crops must be weighed, researchers say

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[OCT. 30, 2006]  CHAMPAIGN -- Biofuels advocates should not ignore the potential ecological side effects of crops being developed to produce such fuels, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says in an article published Sept. 22 in Science.

While there is a great need for stable, nonpolluting energy alternatives that reduce U.S. reliance on foreign fuel sources, research on these new energy sources developed by agronomists must be balanced by collaborating with ecologists who can help address the environmental risks of biofuels production, says S. Raghu of the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in Champaign. Raghu is the lead author of the Science article on environmental issues involving biofuels. He holds adjunct appointments at the University of Illinois in the department of entomology and the department of natural resources and environmental sciences.

Demand for alternative energy sources recently was given added impetus by the federal Renewable Energy Initiative, which calls for the identification of biofuels crops as energy sources. However, this initiative may be in direct conflict with a previous presidential directive, Executive Order 13112, which attempts to protect the U.S. from the importation of potentially invasive species unless benefits outweigh potential harms.

Ironically, the very attributes that make certain plants ideal biofuel candidates also make them potential invasive species when they are introduced into our environment, Raghu said. Ecologists warn that a number of crops being considered for biofuels, including the exotic grass Miscanthus x giganteus, could damage the environment as invasive species because of characteristics such as rapid growth, low pest incidence and efficient water use.

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The authors point out that even native biofuel species, such as Panicum virgatum, also known as switch grass, can become invasive when they encroach upon habitats in which they are not endemic.

The article is a collective call from scientists in universities and government for biofuels research to address ecological risks rigorously prior to large-scale distribution of biofuel species across our landscape.

Given the increasing political and social pressures to develop biofuels, the authors stress the need for policymakers to carefully analyze the environmental costs and balance them against the environmental and economic benefits of introducing plant species as biofuel sources. Such analyses are already mandatory for other novel or exotic species introductions, such as biological control agents and transgenic plants.

[University of Illinois news release]

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