Biofuels got off to a rocky start in the U.S. several years ago with an unfortunate emphasis on corn ethanol and other food crops. Now attention has shifted to more sustainable, non-food biofuel feedstocks including weeds, grasses and trees. Non-food biofuel croplands could be sited in relatively remote or underused areas, and some could double as managed nature conservation lands or recreation areas, providing farmers with a more diverse revenue stream — if only those pesky feral hogs don’t get in the way.
Finding Space for Biofuel Crops
Using non-food crops as biofuel feedstock is a partial solution to the upward pressure on food prices, but biofuel crops will still be competing with food crops for growing space. A more sustainable solution would be to grow biofuel crops on marginal land that is unsuitable for food crops, and there is certainly a potential for that. Part of the attraction of non-food biofuel crops, generally speaking, is their hardiness and relatively low need for fertilizers, pesticides and other tending.
The Feral Hog Population Explosion
While biofuel crops may require less maintenence than most food crops, they are not worry-free, and apparently a new worry is emerging. The population of feral hogs is exploding, particularly in Texas, posing a “substantial liability” to agriculture in that state to the tune of about $400 million annually. According to to a recent AP report, feral hogs can weigh hundreds of pounds, and they can churn through fields doing as much damage as a bulldozer. They are even starting to menace city dwellers. Pennsylvania is another state that seems to have an emerging feral hog problem, but Texas is the epicenter. At 2 million and counting, it has roughly half the nation’s feral hog population.
Fiscal Woes and Hog Control
According to a Texas A&M University fact sheet, domestic hogs were introduced in Texas all the way back in the mid-1500s, giving rise to a feral counterpart. However, the population of feral hogs only took off in the 1980s – ironically, after they became a popular hunting target. Instead of getting killed off by hunters, feral hogs were fed, moved, and re-released to provide more targets, and they responded enthusiastically. They are smart enough to avoid control measures, and before they are a year old females can produce two or even three litters annually, with up to eight offspring each. Fiscal problems in Texas could make things even worse, if budget cuts reduce the state’s “modest’ attempts at control.
Biofuels and Feral Hogs
Feral hogs are probably not the first things that come to mind in terms of a national energy policy, but they are becoming major agricultural pest, and that in turn will impact the cost-effectiveness of growing feedstock for biofuels. President Obama has called for a “Sputnik Moment” to encourage public support for funding 21st century technologies, including sustainable energy, but as the feral hog issue demonstrates, public spending on low-tech solutions will continue to play a critical role in our energy future.
Image: Feral hog by stefpet on flickr.com.