Biofuel production could threaten fynbos

South Africa’s unique fynbos vegetation could be threatened if canola is introduced as a source of biofuel.

This is according to an article published in the latest issue of the South African Journal of Science, which looks at the ecological risks of introducing canola or oilseed as a biofuel in the country.

Researchers Melodie McGeoch, Jesse Kalwij and James Rhodes, who conducted the research under the auspices of the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University, hope their research will underscore the importance for policymakers of the impact that major changes in agricultural practices could have on the environment.

The research, which looked at the potential for gene flow from the canola plant or oilseed, was conducted against a backdrop in which the demand for increased food production and energy has prompted changes in agricultural production. This has been made possible by technological advances such as genetic modification.

The study looked at canola because it is becoming one of the most important sources of oil and protein in the world and was recently proposed as a source of biofuel in South Africa.

Although it is yet not produced on a large scale, it is grown in the Western Cape, which is prime fynbos area.

“If canola is to be planted as a biofuel in South Africa it will need larger stretches of land in this area and this could threaten fynbos,” McGeoch said.

The researchers also identified other risks to the introduction of canola as a biofuel. These include the ability of the canola plant to form hybrids with other plants, including weeds that are related to the plant, through a process known as gene flow.

These hybrids can be more vigorous than their parents. In the case of weeds this could mean they are more difficult to control, need more pesticides or could even become resistant to pesticides. This could create significant problems for both farmers and the environment.

According to the research, gene flow has already been established between the canola plant and some of its wild relatives. Although this may not be a problem if the plants are not in the same area, there is significant spatial overlap.

“We have to think in advance of the risks of major changes in our agricultural production, their consequences and what will happen if these outcomes materialise,” McGeoch said.

“The challenge is therefore to balance needs, for example enhanced energy needs versus biodiversity conservation,” she said.

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Cornia Pretorius
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