Can energy crops damage your health?

A recent scientific article suggests that growing fast growing woody energy crops such as willow, poplar and eucalyptus could lead to increased human mortality and reduce crop yields. See: Impacts of biofuel cultivation on mortality and crop yields

Apparently, large areas of fast growing tree crops could produce substantial emissions of isoprene which reacts in the troposphere to produce ground level ozone. The paper predicts that growing 72 million hectares of these crops in Europe would result in 1365 premature deaths annually and reduce wheat yields by 3.5%.

Although, this is a concern – we are currently a long way from 72 million hectares. In the UK there are around 3000 hectares of short rotation coppice willow. In addition, the paper fails to consider the flipside i.e. how many premature deaths may be prevented by growing these crops? For instance willow and poplar can be used to help prevent and delay flooding and to reduce nitrate pollution  from farm land. In addition, by sustainable production of local biomass in rural areas across Europe these crops could help millions of people out of fuel poverty. Each year many people die because they can’t afford to stay warm.

There are two sides to every story and as far as we are concerned woody energy crops have many more positive benefits than negative ones.