Case Study for Regional Perspectives in Ecology and Environmental Science
Submitted by Dr. Brian Shmaefsky, Kingwood College
Title: Harvesting Kudzu: A Controversial Business
Pet rocks and lava lamps are proof that clever entrepreneurs can turn useless items into lots of money. For most situations this type of needless consumerism creates environmental problems. It leads to the depletion of landfills as people tire of the items and toss them into the trash. The resources needed to produce these items waste natural resources and may generate hazardous wastes. However, in many instances this type of free enterprise does good things for the environment. It may encourage the recycling or reuse of materials that would normally end up as junk.
A group of people operating a variety of small enterprises is turning a little-known environmental problem into a thriving business. They are creating crafts and other household products from a plant called kudzu. A majority of the kudzu cottage industry is run out of homes and small facilities that handcraft the plant into various items. Some businesses sell the living plant for landscaping curiosities. Kudzu is far from being a protected natural resource. Conversely, many states and the federal government encourage the destruction of kudzu plants.
Cottage industries are small businesses that create and market items that are normally not profitable for larger corporations. Many of them produce high-quality handcrafted items that cannot be manufactured adequately by machines. Some people prefer these individualized handcrafted objects to the uniform products pumped out by impersonal technology. Cottage industries also create income in regions that normally have a small number of jobs or few sources of revenue. In most situations, these industries bring outside money into rural areas helping to keep down tax rates.
The Kudzu Industry
Items made from kudzu parts include animal feed, art, baskets, cardboard, clothing, foods, and herbal medicines. Large volumes of kudzu are ground up into pulp for cardboard boxes, construction materials, mulch, and packaging insulation. Many people view this as an environmentally friendly industry because it reduced the need to harvest forests for trees. The pulp industry particularly was suffering from the depletion of forests and from government regulation controlling tree removal.
Food can also be made from kudzu. Kudzu jelly, made from the fruit, and kudzu syrup, made from the sap, are said to be tasty and are accompanied by a range of recipes. Some people sell recipes using kudzu leaves and fruit that can be purchased along with the kudzu cuisine recipe books. The stem and roots of kudzu are high in starch and can be used in place of traditional starch sources. Kudzu is also becoming a popular herbal remedy purportedly for treating liver ailments and controlling diabetes. The claims are based on its use in Chinese herbal medicine. Agricultural animals also benefit from kudzu added to feed. It is a nutritious plant providing animals with ample amounts of protein and vitamins.
Some companies sell living kudzu for Japanese garden landscaping. This native Asian plant gives a natural appearance to Japanese gardens growing in the United States. It is also sold as a living fence or as a vine for a ground cover to hide unsightly areas of a yard. The plant is easy to care for and requires little fertilizer or watering. It grows very quickly allowing for instant landscaping.
Kudzu products are becoming popular items with the widespread use of the Internet. The Internet has allowed these small industries to advertise their products inexpensively. Plus, they are able to reach potential customers in distant regions. Traditionally, these small businesses could only afford to advertise in local newspapers and magazines. Now, they can reach more people than is possible with expensive television advertising. This means kudzu can be sold and distributed to regions outside of the southeastern United States.
The kudzu industry, like most commercial enterprises, has positive and negative impacts on the environment. However, a large number of environmental groups and scientists believe the kudzu industry is largely dangerous to the environment. Supporters of the kudzu industries believe it is a creative way of reducing further harm to the environment where kudzu grows. How is it possible that opposing views about the kudzu industry can both be correct?
The Kudzu Plant
The kudzu vine is not a native plant to North America. It was introduced into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1876 during a Japanese exposition. The plant grew wild in Asia where it was used in gardens and harvested for food and medicine. In 1900 the vine became a popular plant for porches throughout the southeastern United States. Its fragrant flowers were enjoyed as well as its ability to quickly cover trellises. By 1902, biologist David Fairchild warned that the vine could become an invasive species. The concept of invasive species was new to the scientific community. So, few people heeded his warning.
In 1910, in spite of Fairchild's concern, kudzu was planted throughout the south as a food for livestock. By 1934 there were approximately 10,000 acres of kudzu planted throughout the south. That year the United State Soil Conservation Service suggested using kudzu as a ground cover to control erosion along drainage ditches, highways, and waterways. The plant become so popular the Kudzu Club of America Group was formed and it became a favorite yard plant. Kudzu breeding programs were even sponsored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1940's.
Fairchild's suspicion came true by 1960 when the United States Department of Agriculture started campaigns to eradicate the "out of control" kudzu throughout the southeast. Kudzu began growing out of the farms and was rapidly invading other areas. Kudzu quickly overgrew shrubs and trees shading them out so they could not carry out photosynthesis. It quickly choked off native southeastern forests lowering animal and plant biodiversity. Buildings, fences, and houses were also covered up by kudzu. Its seemed that nothing could stop the spread of the plant. Until 1970 it was growing faster than it was being eradicated. It growth was slowed down by the 1990's. However, today it continues to spread and may threaten states outside of the southeast.
Kudzu, Pueraria montana and Pueraria lobata, is a semi-woody perennial vine in the pea family and produces tough seeds that germinate quickly. It can rapidly grow to lengths exceeding 30 meters or about 100 feet. Under warm conditions the vine can grow several centimeters a day. It prefers warm and moist weather. Kudzu can grow in almost any type of soil. Large plants have extensive root systems that enable the plants to resist short dry periods and freezing conditions. The roots can extend up to 3 meters into the ground. However, kudzu is not very tolerant of long dry and freezing conditions.
Kudzu control is not a simple task. Chemical control with herbicides is effective. However, it does pollute the environment and will kill off native plants. The herbicide normally used to control kudzu are glyphosate and tryclopyr. Biological control using pest insects that feed on kudzu is not recommended. The insects may themselves become invasive species that feed on native plants. Some kudzu eradication strategies include having people pick the plants or having grazing animals feed on the plants. Containment and management is also a strategy. It involves reducing the spread of kudzu by banning intentional or neglectful cultivation of the plant.
The environmental impact of controlling kudzu is currently being studied by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In 2001 the National Forest Service had to prepare a study called an environmental impact statement. In this study the Forest Service must show their control programs are actually getting rid of kudzu without causing long-term environmental damage. The government is hoping to use this study to come up with the best plan for completely eliminating the plant for the southern United States.
Government statistics showed that property damage by kudzu and the funds needed to operate kudzu eradication programs costs over $50 million each year. This outlay is disturbed among businesses, farmers, government agencies, homeowners, and utility companies. Utility companies are hit the worst because the plants continuously damage power lines and telephone lines. The weight of the vines can tear down the lines causing a loss of service to many people and businesses.
The commercial popularity of kudzu products is encouraging the kudzu cottage industries to harvest wild plants or grow the plants in farms. They need the kudzu to keep their industries viable. Collecting kudzu from the wild is not a simple task. The plants may be growing on private property or restricted areas where collecting plants is illegal. People collecting the plant are subject to trespassing and vandalism laws.The companies needing large amounts of kudzu for pulp have trouble getting the necessary quantities of the plant for processing. So, they must grow it to keep up with the demand.
A trip to parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina is evidence of the environmental devastation caused by kudzu. It converts forests and fields into miles of dead vegetation supporting a continuous sheet of thriving kudzu vines. Kudzu control poses its own problems. Scientists have consistent research findings that uncontrolled kudzu growth will wipe out the native biodiversity of the southeastern states. It is also possible the kudzu would have the same effect on neighboring states if it continues to spread unabated. The most effective control involves spraying herbicide over large areas of farms, fields, forests, and urban areas. These herbicides kill native plants in addition to poisoning animals and people. Many environmental scientists agree that kudzu must be controlled. However, they argue about the value of using methods that cause other types of environmental damage.
People who use kudzu for their businesses understand the invasive nature of the plant. Many of them started their businesses as a profitable effort to help reduce the plant populations. Ironically, their businesses have produced a need for the material that they were helping to eradicate. So, some kudzu is necessary to keep their businesses viable. Complete eradication of the plant would eliminate businesses that may contribute to a sizeable part of the local economy. Unfortunately, total elimination of kudzu is the best method to prevent any further problems and to keep the plant from invading nearby states. This particularly would disrupt businesses that sell the live plant as an ornamental for household landscaping. Many of them grow kudzu on their properties.
Until recently, there have been no state or federal laws prohibiting the marketing of kudzu. Plus, it is currently not illegal to grow the plant. However, having property with kudzu is highly discouraged and ultimately the agencies charged with controlling kudzu will not tolerate its intentional growth and distribution. The study being conducted by the Forest Service may ultimately lead to federal and state regulations over kudzu management. This means that it may become illegal to willingly grow and distribute kudzu. These measures would obviously come at the protests of the businesses that market kudzu products. Products made from dead kudzu most likely will sell in the United States as long as they were not made from plants grown intentionally within the country.
Doxey, W. 1985. Cousins of the Kudzu. Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge, LA.
Hoots, D. & Baldwin, J. 1996. Kudzu: The Vine to Love or Hate. Suntop Press; Kodak, TN.
Yeagers, E. (Ed). 1997. University of Georgia College of Agriculture Fact Sheet. Urban Kudzu Control. (Available at http://www.dekalbextension.com)
Nonnative Invasive Plants of Southern Forests
Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council
2. Economic development
3. Environmental impact
4. Invasive species
5. Jobs versus environmental quality
6. Weed control
1. What are the local and global consequences of environmental protection strategies that negatively impact the livelihood of certain people?
2. What types of compromises can be reached between businesses that want to grow kudzu and those that want it completely eradicated?
3. Who should pay the costs of controlling kudzu growth that upsets the operations of utility companies? Explain why they should pay.
4. How is it possible for the negative environmental impacts of eradicating kudzu to exceed the benefits?
Dr. Brian Shmaefsky, Kingwood College