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Domestic Bamboo Cultivation: Miracle Cure for US Agricultural Economy?

| Wednesday March 18th, 2009 | 9 Comments

bamboo%20in%20a%20tube.jpegBamboo is often held up as this sustainable wonder plant, able to grow quickly, not require pesticides, and absorb a heap of CO2 as it grows – 4 times as much as hardwood trees, while putting out 35% more oxygen.
But there’s a problem: It’s gotten so popular that the stock is getting depleted faster then it can be grown. The U.N. estimates that up to half the 1200 species of bamboo are either endangered or extinct from over harvesting. And it comes almost entirely from China, India, and other far away places, potentially negating or exceeding the carbon reduction it achieved while growing. The US being the world’s biggest importer of bamboo products, that’s a problem.
Then comes the stumbling block: Bamboo doesn’t grow domestically. At least not the kinds that are used in making the flooring, towels, clothing, etc. that so many of us have become fond of. Or so the story goes. If Booshoot Gardens has its way, that story will be changing soon.


They are able to clone original, un-genetically modified bamboo plants, turning what was a few thousand plants into several million. What’s the significance of this? Creating new bamboo plants from scratch is a long process, and with increasing demand, there isn’t time. With Booshoot Gardens already begun shoots, a farmer could plant and once again be reaping the benefits, while we all do via its atmospheric positive benefits as it grows.
In a compelling short video, CEO Jackie Heinricher makes a strong case for all of this, including that the Mississippi Delta, a cotton focused region whose agricultural focus, cotton, has been eaten away by cheaper suppliers in other countries, is ideal for growing the most desirable species of bamboo, to its full height.
In doing this, they could domestically supply the huge US market, create jobs in an economically depressed region, and massively reduce water and pesticide use, as compared to the resource hog that is cotton.
The question that remains is, can we find a way to create these value added products from bamboo while minimizing chemicals used to create them?
Readers: What’s your take on bamboo, and creating products from it? Is swapping cotton for bamboo doable, desirable? Why? Would you specifically buy US made bamboo products?
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media. Who he has and wants to work with includes consumer, media, clean tech, NGOs, social ventures, and museums.


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  • Eric

    The problem with bamboo cultivation (at least in their native habitats) is that it is quite literally a weed. If left unchecked it will overgrow the area and choke off other plant life.
    It’s also extremely difficult to work with. My family owns a wood products factory and I’ve been thinking about getting into bamboo products for several years now. Unfortunately, it would require all new equipment as our existing saws would be worn down in no time by bamboo cutting. It’s also extremely labor intensive to work with, which means it’s pretty much impossible to manufacture anything out of bamboo in the states. That pretty much means we’d have to import anything made of bamboo (until someone really clever figures out a reliable way to automate bamboo processing) which probably negates any environmental benefit if we’re shipping it halfway across the world.

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    All valid points.
    And I would think that with enough interest in it, equipment could start being made specifically for it. Balancing out initial expenses with short/long term savings due to reduced pesticide/water use, and it could have a chance. In the south, where cotton is withering as a viable option, this could work. Retool old cotton gins, invest in the right equipment, and it’s game on.

  • Nick Aster

    Sounds like an opportunity for someone to invent a better sawmill for Bamboo!

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    Good idea Nick. If machines have typically been geared to wood processing (at least here in the US) there would seem to be an opportunity to be a first mover on this. After all, the US is the biggest importer of bamboo products in the world at the moment. Entrepreneurs, you listening?

  • James Pro

    I say lets try and reap the rewards of bamboo here in the us. As for saws I say use water-laser. If it can cut Thur one inch steel I think it can handle a little weed. water can be recycled Thur the system. and its safe and very fast. as for keeping everything in check, we can hire people who are looking for work to tend the fields and keep everything in order. 1.) It cleans up the air better than trees. 2.) It grows much faster than trees. 3.) Its more apt to hold the soil together when Hurricanes come. 4.) It has a lot more uses than patio furniture. 5.) Its a market that not every Tom Dick and Harry has here in the US. 6.) It will put Americans to work and thats the greatest fact of all… J.Pro

  • Will McCracken

    Reading Gaia’s Garden I see some strong uses for bamboo in the perenial garden I’m doing in my backyard. First, my 1/2 backyard has a 3-4 degree southern tilt. Rather then invest much time in making swales, my thinking is that bamboo would fix the soil in place. Second, food. I love bamboo shoots which also seem to be a good way to control the spread of its rhiozomes. Third, although I’m not going to build things with it (unless I get REALLY ambitious), bamboo seems to me a great material for trellies, arches, etc.

    Other crops I have now in-ground are tomatoes (of course), kale (non perenial right now), cabbage, artichoke, carrots, beets, radishes, rhubard, asparagus, tomatillos, leeks in straw-bale raised beds with above-ground potatoes in straw (a learning experience).

    Thoughts?

    Thoughts?

  • http://sierraclub.org/mrgreen Bob Schildgen

    We should be extremely wary of any non-native species that is touted as a “miracle.” Some type of bamboo are invasive species that can choke out native vegetation. We’ve already got enough of problems like this, e.g. kudzu. We can get wood from sustainable forestry rather than take chances with bamboo.

  • Dan Herr

    1)Water-laser cutting might be a good idea. Retooling would be necessary but it would need to be spread-sheeted in ROI terms.
    2) The bamboo being cloned means that it is sterile. If it’s not a sterile clone there are GM options for sterile bamboo that would solve this problem. Importing bamboo as opposed to selling bamboo and carbon credits doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

  • S2auld

    From what I’ve been reading lately, G. Angustifolia is the species most used in larger markets – construction, flooring, furniture, etc. and grows in a clump as opposed to other varieties that have long horizontal rhizomes that become invasive.  The plant only blooms every 6-10 years, so in controlled plantations, care is taken to gather seeds when they finally do produce.  Central America is recovering land that has been clear-cut by planting it in such areas, thereby creating a local industry – the maintenance and harvesting being part of it, and the production of products another arm of the industry.  We, in the US, have to stop thinking of ourselves as just consumers and start looking at ways to create jobs, cut down on imports, and start making progress on reduction of greenhouse gasses.  Bamboo seems to answer all those needs.  It can be used for all the same things wood is currently used for, and in many ways makes a better end product.  Its uses are myriad and its benefits, in my mind, outweigh any risks.  That variety is indigenous to Central America, which is contiguous to the southern US where cotton has just about run its course.  Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I’m still investigating investment options.