Many years ago, diving along the west coast of Florida, to Tallahassee, taking children to college if it matters, we came upon a strange sight, worthy of a Twilight Zone plot. A vine had covered entire fields, over small abandoned buildings and farm equipment, up and over trees and telephone poles; it was everywhere.
Recent news events reminded me of this vine, called Kudzu. As I will discuss later, Kudzu was brought to the United States in 1876 where it was strongly promoted by the Federal government as a way to combat erosion and as a forage crop. It is now classified as a nuisance plant, in spite of some useful attributes of the vine.
We have a serious energy/foreign policy crisis in this country. Even our President, an “oil man” with an oil background and friends, acknowledges that we have an addiction to oil. In many and obvious ways, our foreign policy in the Middle East has been dictated by our use of petroleum products. We in the United States use almost one-quarter of the petroleum available worldwide each year. The oil producing countries manipulate the production of oil to further their political aims and to keep the prices high and, as a bonus, to bring discomfort to the Western countries. Oil refiners and distributors are recording obscene profits by keeping the amount of refined fuels low, the American people are burdened with high gasoline prices at the pump.
But that is only part of the problem and consequences of our “addiction”; nearly all food products, clothing, machinery and the like are brought to retail stores by truck. When fuel costs increase, the cost of the things we buy also increase.
There has been an increased interest in non-fossil fuels, bio-fuels as ethanol. In this country, as a result of strenuous lobbying by farm interests, led by giant Archer-Daniels-Midland, the primary source of ethanol has been corn. The Law of Unforeseen Consequences came into play last week when it was reported that, with vast amounts of corn being diverted to ethanol production, there was insufficient quantities for feed lots. As a result, the price of beef and pork and chicken was expected to increase. Ethanol could be made from sugar cane, of which there is abundance in Florida. It won’t happen because of tariff and import restrictions designed to keep the large sugar mega-corporations enjoying record profits (while poisoning the Everglades – at least that part that developers haven’t already destroyed.)
Everyone, save the oil producers and refiners, agrees that we must find and develop alternative, non-petroleum sources of energy. A number of organizations are promoting wind power, hydro-electric sources and bio-fuels. Recent news articles point out limitations on the latter. Taking food products out of the food chain has dire consequences both here and abroad. The answer would be a source for the production of ethanol or other fuels from a non-food source, one that is fast growing, readily available and constantly renewable.
Kudzu seems to fit the bill.
The primary problem with Kudzu is that it grows to well, is darn impossible to eradicate and grows at a prodigious rate. The vine will grow from spring to frost at a rate of a foot per day, or about sixty feet pet season. In its spread, it will cover small buildings, abandoned machinery, climb trees and telephone poles alike. In the United States, it has taken over fields from southern Florida and the Florida Keys to Pennsylvania. There have been reports of invading Kudzu covering fields in Australia. Pictures of Kudzu infested fields are like a science fiction motion picture! One unhappy result of the rapid growth of the plant and the apparent inability to control it is that native crops are forced out.
Does it have any uses? Inventive folks in the south have developed a cottage industry in using Kudzu for jellies and other edibles. Other people have fashioned baskets out of the vine. In Georgia, especially, the vine is used for foraging for goats and other livestock.
In China and Japan, Kudzu is used in folk medicine and, in fact, researchers have worked for years to develop attributes of Kudzu that seem to have an effect on alcoholism. Research is continuing to explore various medicinal uses for the “weed”.
Researchers are just now working on the use of Kudzu to produce cellulosic ethanol. In correspondence with researchers at the University of Alabama, I was advised that a possible break through is close. It is ironic that a noxious weed, one that has had numerous studies on how to eradicate it could be a way to get rid of energy dependence on OPEC and nations that are certainly not our friends.