Friday, January 21, 2011

Pennycress: Superhero or Salad?

When is a weed no longer a weed? 

When it becomes the best option for making diesel fuel, say researchers in Peoria. We can thank the Agricultural Research Service for discovering that a pesky little mustard-family spring weed commonly known as field pennycress, or, not so commonly, as Thlaspi arvense, produces seeds that are 36% oil and can make truck engines rev and oil furnaces rumble.

Who knew?

And isn’t it convenient that when corn and soybeans are growing, pennycress is sleeping … and vice versa. 

I wish I could tell you that this pervasive garden pest offers the answer to the current economic slump and our dependence on the tenuous good will of our global neighbors in the Middle East. We could potentially grow 8 billion gallons of biodiesel without plowing any additional acreage. This is more than a drop in the bucket … it’s closer to a splash in the pail. In other words, even though pennycress can be grown in the off-season, even though it can be efficiently aerial-seeded leaving behind neither tractor ridges nor clouds of dust, even though it grows “like a weed” with no assistance from herbicides or pesticides, it is not the answer. It’s an answer for a biofuel industry that is struggling to meet the EPA’s required Renewable Fuels Standard without bumping up the prices of corn and soybeans and, in turn, everything else. Best case scenario: pennycress will help diesel fuel blends go from 1-5% bio- up to 20% bio-diesel, and greenhouse gas emissions will hold steady. As will the price of soda. But we’ll just consider that an adverse reaction.

But ... we need to do better than hold steady. In our stuff-stuffed world, where gadgets and fashions must travel from China to the freight depots to the diesel-fueled tractor-trailers to the Walmarts to our closets and rented storage facilities, we need to think about reaching that inner place where enough stuff is enough. 

So when is a weed no longer a weed? Turns out field pennycress is edible, as is another pesky little mustard-family spring weed commonly known as bittercress, or, not so commonly, as Cardamine hirsuta

There’s no down side to free salad!