Is Arundo the next answer to the fuel crisis or the next kudzu?

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Soil Erosion Service distributed 85 million seedlings of kudzu over 3 million acres of sloped embankments to prevent erosion. While the initial intention probably seemed like a good idea, other issues took precedence over maintaining the weed, which quickly took over everything in its path. According to a recent article in Raleigh’s major newspaper, officials wanting to increase the production of biofuels in the South are planning to start mass plantings of another aggressive and invasive weed: Arundo.

The article presents several of the economic advantages of planting entire farms of Arundo, including a new internally-produced fuel source and dozens of jobs created in a rural southeastern NC county. Also presented are arguments from North Carolina scientists concerned about an Arundo takeover that may erode some of the increased revenue from the fuel, along with a decreased capacity to absorb nitrogen in areas with concentrations of hog farms. Since you can go ahead and read about those in the article, I’m not going to repeat them; rather, I’m going to present other information about Arundo, and rather than take a side, I’ll lay out the pros and cons of using this new weed as a biofuel, so you can decide on your own how you feel.

Arundo is a perennial grass that can grow up to 30 feet tall and has a growth pattern similar to bamboo. In the U.S. it does not reproduce by seed but sends out rhizomes or shoots from the parent plants. The common name for Arundo is “giant reed,” which many of you may have heard before.

Arundo is indigenous to the Mediterranean Basin and thrives in warm climates. It was brought to the U.S. in 1820 to be used for roofing material and fodder. The canes were also used to make woodwind instruments such as the Pan pipe. Arundo has also been used for erosion control, but because of its shallow roots, flooding can uproot plants, moving them to other areas where they begin to propagate. Populations that are considered invasive probably originated in managed areas where plants were moved during a storm.

Like most invasive plants, Arundo can grow in a wide variety of environmental and climate conditions and prefers disturbed soil. The most effective control is through herbicides, but chemical control for vast populations of the weed can get expensive. The Raleigh article states that California has spent more than $70 over the past two decades on control programs.

The North Carolina agriculture commissioner wants to substitute Arundo for bermudagrass as a nitrogen absorber—giving it a double duty of fuel production and water purifier. However, Arundo absorbs only a fourth of the nitrogen absorbed by bermudagrass, so water quality specialists worry that it will allow nitrogen from hog farms to drain into nearby waterways.

The flip side to Arundo, however, is its contribution to providing a new fuel source. Its huge mass that makes it threatening in a nature park also translates into large quantities of biofuel. Whether the production of an Arundo fuel in the U.S. would translate to lower fuel prices remains to be seen, however, as prices are often driven by factors outside of production alone.

The Chemtex facility would also add 65 people to its workforce, adding jobs to a traditionally rural county. Farmers in four N.C. counties who agree to grow Arundo would also be compensated at harvest.

So the question is whether the gain of jobs and domestic fuel production outweighs the possibility of a future battle with escaped plantings in parks, natural areas and home landscapes. The answer is what you get to decide.

Article: Murowski, J. (25 Sept 2012) Energy Wonder Crop Arundo Raises Invasive Fears. News & Observer. Online at http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/09/24/2367318/energy-wonder-crop-arundo-raises.html.

Info Source: Invasive Plants of California’s Wildland: Arundo donax. http://www.cal-ipc.org/ip/management/ipcw/pages/detailreport.cfm@usernumber=8&surveynumber=182.php.

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