The Genes and Politics of Kenaf: Making Paper's Best Alternative Better

Kodak uses it for photography paper; so do mints for printing money; it can be used to insulate your car from sound vibrations. It's kenaf — voted by the USDA in the 1960s as the best alternative to paper. Has the USDA backpeddled on its words, because we are wondering why kenaf has taken so long to make it to paper's center stage? TreeHugger speaks with Tel Aviv University kenaf scientists recently covered in BioBased on their research and the road to making kenaf a more viable paper fibre.

Kenaf is a fast-growing annual related to the cotton-plant and which is best suited for warm climates found in Texas, Central America, China, Africa and more. "The same acreage of land planted with kenaf can yield the equivalent quantity of pulp fibres from wood that takes 20 years to grow," explains Prof. Roni Aloni from the Plant Sciences Department at TAU.
Prof. Aloni has been working on kenaf for 30 years and has recently released findings of being able to "deactivate" a gene in the kenaf plant that can make crops yield 50% more high-quality fibre.

"If you think about China," says Prof. Aloni (see our post here), "They don't have enough forest trees. They have large areas of land that are being decimated from deforestation. Kenaf could be a good replacement for reducing the carbon footprint in this case."

In addition, "Our technology makes the fibres longer and of higher quality making the kenaf able to compete economically with wood pulp for paper."

Right now in the testing stage, Prof. Aloni and his graduate student Jonathon Dayan are working on preliminary results. They have found that when they silence the gene coding the deactivation of the growth hormone called gibberellin they can produce up to 50% more high-quality fibres per crop of kenaf. Traditionally, kenaf plants are sprayed with growth substances to increase its yield — which is costly and dodgy in the environmental sense.

"The paper and wood industry is more than $250 billion a year," says Prof. Aloni. "People think about cutting less wood, and when they do cut trees, then they would like to use it for wood products and not for paper. This is where kenaf could fit the bill."

However, the widespread use of kenaf is still very much a "political issue" he admits.

"Forestry people know how to work with trees," says Aloni. "They don't know how to work with kenaf. Once they harvest a Douglas Fir forest, they plant more Douglas Fir trees immediately. Also for kenaf, one would need a special mill nearby."

For this reason, Prof. Aloni suspects, kenaf will be a good crop alternative for farmers.

Says Dayan, "I came to Prof. Aloni because he has the foresight to see that in the future we will have a problem with paper fibre production. He thought of ways to solve this — methods which are environmentally sound."

Sounds good to us.

Here are some kenaf links recommended by Prof. Aloni.

Vision Paper
Kenaf Fiber
Fiber Futures

For more information on Prof. Aloni's work, email ::BioBased