MARCH 2010

Europe expresses concern over invasive biofuel crops

Biofuel crops will impact biodiversity and natural ecosystems unless tightly controlled, said a panel of European experts.

In late 2009, the Standing Committee of the Council of Europe Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (known as the Bern Convention) adopted a recommendation on potentially invasive alien plants being used as biofuel crops (Recommendation 141, 2009). They warn that some biofuel crops are able to escape as pests, and in so doing impact on native biodiversity. As rural communities plan to grow more biofuel crops, the likelihood of new and harmful ‘invasions’ will increase apace.

Therefore the Council of Europe made recommendations, which are legally binding on member states:

  • Avoid the use of biofuel crops already recognized as invasive;
  • Carry out risk assessments for new species and genotypes;
  • Monitor the spread of biofuel crops into natural habitats and their effects on native species;
  • Mitigate the spread and impact on native biodiversity wherever biofuel crops escape cultivation.

These measures were prompted by a report submitted by ISPRA (the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, an agency of the Italian Ministry for the Environment) to the Bern Convention group of experts. While recognizing the growth in energy demand, linked to rising populations and the economic and environmental costs of fossil fuels, the report made a compelling case to farm biofuel crops in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Several biofuel species share common traits with invasive, aggressive species, selected inter alia for their rapid growth, high seed production, and resistance to pests and diseases. The evidence is clear. Without these measures, escaped biofuel crops cause loss of native biodiversity and farmland functionality, with knock on effects on yield.

It is therefore important, say the experts, to introduce pre-cultivation screening for each proposed genotype and region. Cultivation criteria to limit the dispersal and recruitment capacity of the invasive crops need to be introduced. Biological buffer zones between crop fields and natural vegetation are also key to limiting invasions. The more invasive the crop, the bigger the buffer zone.

In the long-term, biofuel crops with invasive traits need to be limited in number and scope, even if this affects the agronomic efficiency and financial bottom line. Complying with these Bern Convention recommendations will conserve Europe’s wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats, while producing sustainable and renewable sources of energy.