Friday, November 30, 2012

Switch to Switchgrass?

The Chester River Association hosted an online presentation Thursday to tout the benefits of switchgrass, a sturdy, deep-rooted grass native to much of North America.

Advocates say the complex root structure of switchgrass holds soil in place and absorbs nutrients, making it an ideal crop for buffers to stabilize stream banks and absorb excess fertilizer. They also say switchgrass is very high in carbon, making it a good candidate for biofuel.

The CRA says its goal is to develop a viable switchgrass market and establish switchgrass buffers on farmland, reducing the amount of nutrients and sediments entering the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay.
The idea of switchgrass for biofuel is not quite as awful as corn for gasohol.  At the very least, it is not a crop edible by humans, a commodity that using large amounts of for fuel will increase it's cost as food.  As a use for marginal land, for farmers to make some additional money, it might be useful.

However, it might also have some negative consequences.  If it's grown on land where other food crops, including corn, are currently being grown, it could still reduce food supplies, and drive food prices upwards as gasohol production does, and the temptation to fertilize it for greater yields might cancel it's benefits.  It might also prompt farmers to convert some "marginal" land from wild, to a monoculture of switchgrass, to the detriment of wildlife. I don't know how it's carbon footprint compares to gasohol, which is worse than simply pulling oil out of the ground and burning it.

Unintended consequences are, well, unintended, and often negative.
Why not invasive Phragmites for cellulosic biofuel?  It grows all over the Chesapeake Bay area, unloved and unwanted anyway.  Just harvest unwanted stands of Phrag for biofuel.  Incidentally, that looks like Phrag in the background behind the switchgrass in the USDA photo above.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent point. It applies to many other weeds as well( cattails come to mind). To keep weeds under control requires a real profit somewhere- They WILL be back, so you'll have to do it again. Look at what is being done in Manitoba's lake Winnipeg!