An Unusual Competitor To Biofuels?

Joanna Schroeder

According to an interesting article published in Zootaxaca, a taxonomy journal, scientists have unveiled an unusual competitor with humans for switchgrass, an energy crop with great potential for biofuels, the Blastobasis repartella moth. South Dakota State University entomologist Paul Johnson and agronomist Arvid Boe, along with other researchers, are studing the moth whose larvae are born into the stems of switchgrass stalks.

Johnson, who was interviewed by the ArgusLeader, said that if switchgrass, and other similar native grasses are to be farmed commercially, it is important that both science and industry know more about their natural ecologies. This includes how the moth would be affected by growing and harvesting switchgrass for biofuels.

Johnson said that while he and his team knew “the common stuff” they were surprised to learn that the moths in the Blastobasis genus fed on plant matter – they were thought to be scavengers. This could make farming switchgrass tricky, he says because growing one crop limits biodiversity and allows parasites or predators to take hold more easily. He also noted that since the moth is a “burrowing insect” it makes it more difficult and expensive for farmers to rid the plant of the insect.

According to the article, issues such as those posed by the moth are accounted for in a provision included in the 208 Farm Bill which subsidizes much of the cost of establishing a perennial biomass crop such as switchgrass.

In the meantime, there is a long way to go before energy crops, or biomass crops become commercially viable for biofuels. During this time, Johnson cautions that more research is needed among all biomass crops to learn more about the moth as well as other potential pests and his team will continue to “look more closely at how the moth fits into the plant’s ecology, studying its varieties, its predators and its infestation rates.”

“Now we can take that (basic) information and start generating data to answer some of these questions,” he said.

Ethanol, Research