Potentially Profitable, Potentially Invasive
Huffington Post Green featured an article this week about an interesting plant that could be potentially profitable for the renewable fuels industry, yet has the potential to be invasive as well.
Arundo donax is a perennial cane native to eastern and southernAsia. It could grow exceeding 10 meters, resembling a bamboo. This giant reed is being considered by some as an alternative to coal, while others are looking over its potential for ethanol biorefinery production. According to the article Arundo donax could bring in $70 million in a 20 million gallon year ethanol project suggested by biofuels manufacturers in North Carolina. The biofuels center of North Carolina hopes that companies in the state will achieve a 10% production equivalent in terms of total transportation fuel consumption in the state. That would be 600 million gallon in terms of biofuel. The center’s goal includes, however, a 50-acre propagation nursery for the giant reed as an energy grass.
While some want to fill lands with it to bring in millions of dollars in profit, others are spending millions of dollars to take it out of their land. The state of California has reportedly spent over $70 million in elimination efforts. Arundo donax is sprayed with herbicide, mowed down, and chain sawed, at the cost of $25,000 per acre.
The reason? The giant reed is designated as a noxious weed in Virginia and Texas. In California Arundo donax has been identified as having a high risk for invasiveness. It has been reported as causing problems like competition with native species, increasing water temperatures due to little shading, reducing habitat for aquatic wildlife, and suspected of altering hydrological regimes in the area, among others.
The question regarding the giant reed appears to be simple once blinding 6-digit figures are set aside for the moment: Should potentially invasive plants be intentionally cultivated for potential profit?
The challenge of invasives has plagued countries for years and the solutions range from creative to the amusing. Open hunting seasons have been declared, mile-long fences built, and recipes have been made in attempts to halt invasive species in their tracks. While there have been some accidental benefits from these efforts, they have been waged mainly as an offensive against an existing problem. On the other hand, intentionally cultivating potential invasives in order to gain the same benefits (on a larger scale) is something entirely very different. There would be no similar accidental benefits in this case, only certain risks.
In Arundo donax’s case, those who want to harness its biofuel potentials give reassurances that risks will be under control. But the article points out the dissenting opinion of EDF Southeast Director Jane Preyer, who observes that hurricane-prone North Carolina has been submerged under several feet of floodwater despite preparations against the recent Hurricane Sandy. To think that man can truly control nature is naiveté, she says, The Native Plant Society of Oregon also cites genetic modification as a possible way for the giant reed to spread as a highly invasive plant after the state gave permission for a 400-acre control area for Arundo donax in 2011.
Once more, the conflict apparent in Arundo donax’s case – a conflict between potential profit and potential risk – seems to stem not from a lack of knowledge or technology, but from a faulty perspective. Technologies that provide means to utilize sustainable sources of energy and fuel should be the future being developed today. A global shift from fossil fuel dependence would not progress without consistent choices being made in the direction of the goal of a sustainable future.
After agricultural lands and crops have been used to produce fuel for vehicles instead of food for people, will potential invasives be the next to cater to the outdated fossil fuel-based technology of the past century? Perhaps the millions of dollars, the acres of good agricultural land and, the most precious resource of all, time, would be better invested somewhere else – preferably in the direction of sustainability.
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