The Thin Green Line: A Framework for Evaluating the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Crops

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Virginia Tech


The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act mandates the production of 135 billion liters of transportation fuel achieved through the use of alternative energy sources. The most economically and sustainably competitive bioenergy crops will need to be high yielding, perennial species which require minimal inputs coupled with the ability to grow on marginal land. Grower adoption will be imperative to the success of this industry. Our results indicate that after three years of growth, several species including Arundo donax and Miscanthus × giganteus are able to produce up to 48.2 and 61.4 Mg ha⁻¹ dry weight of feedstock respectively. We also found that weed management may not be necessary under ideal growing conditions, but a group of herbicides appear promising for preemergence and postemergence application timings, tested under greenhouse conditions. The herbicides pyroxasulfone, sethoxydim and nicosulfuron may prove to be useful tools for the control of bioenergy crops if they escape cultivation.

The potential for many of these exotic and highly competitive species to become invasive has hindered advancement of this industry. We develop a beginning framework to evaluate the potential for seeded Miscanthus × giganteus to become invasive, as no proven formula currently exists. We developed a novel methodology to assess the invasive potential of bioenergy crops across a continuum of invasiveness, which proved to be critical to the interpretation of our results. This methodology allows us to make relative comparisons of risk, evaluating our otherwise isolated results in broader context. We chose to evaluate M. × giganteus in a direct comparison with known exotic invasives, as well as with species that are known not to be invasive. We use a tiered approach, combining qualitative risk assessment models with quantitative field trials. Results from two weed risk assessment models indicate that many bioenergy feedstocks are of high risk, but agronomic crops such as Oryza sativa were also found to be high risk. Subsequent field trials indicate that seedling establishment for M. × giganteus in perennial systems may be low as only 0.1% of emerged seedlings survived after six months, while up to 10% of the invasive Microstegium vimineum survived. Spread of fertile M. × giganteus seedlings into annual systems with low competition had greater success; we observed 316 culms m⁻², at a distance of 1.5 m from the planted plot, after three years of growth. The observed spread of fertile M. × giganteus, in the low competition environment, did not differ from that of our positive control species; however, spread of fertile M. × giganteus seedlings into areas of high competition was significantly lower than our positive controls, up to 3 m from the cultivated plot. Importantly, A. donax and sterile M. × giganteus never spread from the cultivated plot. Results from our study and application of this novel methodology will help to prepare for the expansion of this burgeoning industry while providing useful information for the implementation of best management practices and improved stewardship.



biofuel, habitat susceptibility, invasiveness, Miscanthus, risk assessment