Wood for Breakfast?
That headline may not be as weird as it sounds, as US scientists have discovered a way of converting cellulose, the main component which makes up wood, into edible starch. With 180billion tons of cellulose being produced by plants every year, cellulose is probably the most plentiful organic material available on the planet. Already used as a source of renewable fuel (ethanol), it appears that cellulose is even more versatile than we first imagined.
This may well mean that the currently discarded cellulose as a by-product of biofuel can be converted into a starch product which can be added to food. Largely present in potatoes, rice, bread and other staples, starch in one form or another currently contributes to 50% of the average diet.
The conversion from cellulose into food starch works by way using enzymes to transform the original tree-form of cellulose into glucose.
Still very much under construction, scientists estimate that in five years time cellulose will contribute significantly to the human diet across the world, making ‘wood for breakfast’ a distinct possibility! Currently the costs are high, but it is expected that within half a decade edible cellulose will be produced for as little as 50p per serving.
With these and other technological advances it is hopes that wood will make a real impact on world hunger and sustainable food resources.
An opportunity to end world hunger by thinking outside the (wooden) box
The main contender for producing edible cellulose in huge quantities is the humble poplar tree. This tree thrives in rough and untreated terrain and requires minimal maintenance and upkeep to grow. Poplar trees enjoy rapidity of growth and can be grown in specially adapted eco-forest areas.
Currently used almost solely for the production of biofuel, scientists hope that further research will allow pine trees to take over biofuel, leaving the poplar as the main producer of cellulose. This research is being funded by the US Department of Agriculture.
Another possible contender for the production of biofuel is switchgrass, a tall coarse grass. Although native to America, this plant may be cultivated in other regions if research proves successful. The low quantity of lignin in the switchgrass can boost biofuel production by up to 33%.
Other plants which may also be used in biofuel production is the sweet sorghum (already a high source of protein for livestock), red canary grass and Jatropha although these are still very much in the pipeline. Probably the most well known producer of natural fuels is sugar cane. Current figures show that in Brazil alone there are 9million vehicles being powered by biofuel from sugar cane (2012 figs).
Deserts need no longer be barren with the dwarf saltwort plants, which thrive in dry, dusty terrain. This plant is now cultivated in US, Mexico and India as a source of biofuel.
With more trees and plants able to take on the mantle of biofuel production, it is hoped that the poplar can be future earmarked for exclusive cellulose production in the coming years.
Whilst no one promises an instant fix to the tragedy that is world hunger these exciting new developments could go a long way to substantially boosting world food supplies and to this end, science and technology work tirelessly to advance this research which, it is hoped, will be rolled out to the consumer within 5 – 10 years.
Would you like some wood with that?
With wood gifting us beautiful homes, floors and furniture for centuries, now it looks like we can eat wood too. This would be a good time to move with certainty to not only preserve but actively upkeep forestry areas – surely a project worth spending our taxes on.