Identifying safe cultivars of invasive plants: six questions for risk assessment, management, and communication
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The regulation of biological invasions is often focussed at the species level. However, the risks posed by infra- and inter-specific entities can be significantly different from the risks posed by the corresponding species, to the extent that they should be regulated and managed differently. In particular, many ornamental plants have been the subject of long-term breeding and selection programmes, with an increasing focus on trying to develop cultivars and hybrids that are less invasive. In this paper, we frame the problem of determining the risk of invasion posed by cultivars or hybrids as a set of six questions that map on to the key components of a risk analysis, viz., risk identification, risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication. 1) Has an infra- or inter-specific entity been proposed as “safe to use” despite at least one of the corresponding species being a harmful invasive? 2) What are the trait differences between the proposed safe alternative and its corresponding invasive species? 3) Do the differences in traits translate into a difference in invasion risk that is significant for regulation? 4) Are the differences spatially and temporally stable? 5) Can the entities be distinguished from each other in practice? 6) What are the appropriate ways to communicate the risks and what can be done to manage them? For each question, we use examples to illustrate how they might be addressed focussing on plant cultivars that are purported to be safe due to sterility. We review the biological basis of sterility, methods used to generate sterile cultivars, and the methods available to confirm sterility. It is apparent that separating invasive genetic entities from less invasive, but closely related, genetic entities in a manner appropriate for regulation currently remains unfeasible in many circumstances – it is a difficult, expensive and potentially fruitless endeavour. Nonetheless, we strongly believe that an a priori assumption of risk should be inherited from the constituent taxa and the onus (and cost) of proof should be held by those who wish to benefit from infra- (or inter-) specific genetic entities. The six questions outlined here provide a general, science-based approach to distinguish closely-related taxa based on the invasion risks they pose.