Invasive Weed: Sustainable Fuel or the Start of an Agricultural Apocalypse?

'Arundo Donax' is being lauded by some as a miracle plant, while others are dropping millions trying to kill it before it destroys anything else.
Hardly a garden weed―the Arundo Donax in repose. (Photo: University of Texas at Austin)
Nov 18, 2012· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

We’re taking bets on which parts of our garbage might evolve into the source of our nation’s next biofuel. Until the laboratories can figure it out, all sorts of interesting suggestions are being researched, like stale pastries, green algae and lawn trimmings. They all show promise (seriously) but now one has emerged that might be such a colossally bad idea, its cultivation could lead to a significant ecosystem collapse. Pretty much the opposite effect you want in a biofuel…

The weed known as "Arundo Donax" is according to The New York Times being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a possible sustainable substitute for coal.

State agencies, weary from fossil fuel costs, are casting amorous gazes towards the plant as well because according to the Associated Press, its growth offers some remarkable cost-effective benefits. Arundo is a self-perpetuating weed that requires almost no care once it’s been planted. Its bamboo-like reeds rapidly multiply across fields and each plant can shoot up to 30 feet tall. Its imperviousness to conditions like drought and rocky soil make it easy to understand why some agencies have already deemed it a "miracle plant."

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But pull back the curtain and there lurk some pretty hideous dangers. The 200 scientists who signed a letter sent to the EPA urging it to refuse even testing Arundo seem to have felt pretty strongly about it being the harbinger of our doom. The reasons are many―it’s highly invasive and remarkably difficult to kill, officials in at least three states have banned it, and among them, California has spent $70 million (during a recession, no less!) trying to eradicate it.

Critics complain that it chokes out native species, clogs rivers, consumes precious water, and drains wetlands. So should it escape from whatever field it’s growing in, the weed could ignite dire changes to local ecosystems that would threaten not just the plants, but area wildlife as well. If that seems like a far-fetched possibility, remember $70 million was just spent trying to kill it in a multi-pronged approach that included massive herbicide spraying and chainsaws.

According to the letter sent to the EPA, "Many of today's most problematic invasives…were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation, and forestry purposes. It is imperative that we learn from our past mistakes by preventing intentional introduction of energy crops that may create the next invasive species catastrophe particularly when introductions are funded by taxpayer dollars."

But Mark Conlon, vice president for sector development at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford, told The Times he disagrees. Conlon believes that history need not repeat itself as long as corporations are careful. (Because yes, trusting companies with scientific experiments that can have a lasting impact on our environment is working out like gangbusters. BP oil spill anyone?)

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Most importantly, with all the other sources we’re so close to mass producing, why even consider one that has such potentially harmful side effects? Isn’t the whole point of “going green” to stop damaging the environment, not put it into more precarious situations?

Are there other alternative sources for fuel that you'd like to see studied? Let us know in the Comments.